The would-be senators’ new challenges

With the next round of direct local elections coming up this year, the least-favored seats are strangely those directly elected by their constituents — for members of the Regional Representatives Council at the national and local levels. Far from the spotlight enjoyed by their counterparts bickering in the US Senate, councilors here still strive for recognition compared to those in parliament. The Jakarta Post’s Ridwan Max Sijabat reports on how the new 2009 law on representative bodies affects the Council and its efforts to achieve equal footing with the House of Representatives.

Tension in Papua, stoning in Aceh and a myriad new provinces and regencies have led to calls for a moratorium on the creation of new areas, pending evidence of improved public services.

Yet where was the voice of the regional representatives in all this?

They had repeatedly raised their concerns, but say few are listening.

Some voters say they have hardly any idea what the Regional Representatives Council is all about.

They admit to voting for the candidates only because they were listed on the ballot during the legislative elections.

Others say the Council should just work harder to prove itself.

Sugiono, a noodle vendor in Pondok Indah, South Jakarta, and Rehulina Ginting, a civil servant at the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry, say if the Council is seeking recognition, it should strive harder to deal with the major problems afflicting Jakarta.

“The Council claims to represent regions, but what they have done?” Rehulina asks.

“We’ve been electing people to the Council since 2004, but we don’t know what they’ve done — if anything — to deal with flooding, transportation problems and housing in the capital.”

Surpratomo, a civil servant at the South Tangerang municipal office, and Sjarifuddin, a junior cleric in nearby Pamulang, question the four informal and religious leaders representing Banten province at the Council.

Both say the councilors won their seats simply by buying votes, and have since made no effort to meet with their constituents.

The councilors have been known to bemoan their lack of powers. Initial drafts on their role to influence lawmaking was pared down to merely “consult” with higher-profile House.

But the 2009 Law on the People’s Consultative Assembly, the House of Representatives and the Regional Representatives Council, passed last September, authorizes them to hold hearings with provincial officials, lawmakers and civil society groups during their mandatory stay in the regions.

They still do not have the power of full-fledged senators, with whom interested parties attempt to curry favor, but acknowledge even this official recognition is new for them.

“This political experience is a first for me,” councilor Tonny Tessa, from Papua, tells the Post.

The Council is still making the transition from a body considered a mere extension of the main rubberstamp institution that was the legislature of the New Order days.

The House of Representatives has become more authoritative — it no longer merely nods to the president, to the extent of becoming an object of ridicule of another kind, as made clear in recent weeks in the case of the Bank Century bailout hearings.

With their more visible role, House members have guarded themselves against potential competition, including from the Council.

Of 58 bills prioritized for deliberation this year, only 11 have come from the Council, says Council Speaker Irman Gusman.

The House, for its part, has been criticized for its controversial laws — one notable incident saw the sudden omission of a section on tobacco in the health law.

House Speaker Marzuki Alie has challenged the Council to prove its mettle, now that it gained more recognition.

“With the creation of a checks-and-balances mechanism in parliament, there should be no more laws reviewed by the Constitutional Court, nor the omission of key articles in endorsed bills,” he says.

With the new parliamentary law, the Council has taken part in drawing up the national legislation program for the next five years.

It will constitute a special party alongside the parties at the House in deliberating bills related to regional autonomy, regional-central government ties, natural resources and fiscal balances between regions and the central government.

Yasonna Laoly is a legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is opposed to a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Council greater powers.

He says he believes the Council will contribute nothing toward the checks-and-balances mechanism.

This, he says, is because under the new law, councilors will spend most of their time in their own regions, and given their limited function so far, most are novices on the national political stage.

“It’d be better for them to stay longer in their own constituencies and help the regional administrations solve regional problems,” he says.

“They’ll be of no use in Jakarta.”

Fahri Hamzah, a legislator from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), counters that without the constitutional amendment, the Council “would not contribute much to the regions and regional autonomy”.

The final amendment to the 1945 Constitution states only that the Council “may propose draft bills” related to regional autonomy.

Fahri adds the Council should prove itself and its accountability to win support from the public and parties for the constitutional amendment.

The PKS, the Democratic Party, the United Development Party (PPP), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the National Awakening Party (PKB) support calls for the amendment in 2008.

However, the Golkar Party abstained as its members were split on the issue.

Under the new parliamentary law, the Council members are required to spend part their tenure in
the regions.

Following their inauguration on Oct. 1, 2009, all 132 councilors elected in the April 9 election in 33 provinces have spent three months in their constituencies, after which they hope to better influence policy making.

Tonny Tessa, the councilor from Papua, says he and his three colleagues have made a list of all the problems triggered by the stagnant implementation of Papua’s special autonomy status.

Emma Suryani Ranik, representing West Kalimantan, claims that during her assignment to her constituency, she contributed to a reforestation program in the province’s vast peatlands.

“In the last meeting with provincial authorities, we agreed to improve coordination with the relevant ministries in Jakarta to minimize haze this year,” she says.

Irman says the members’ initial period of work in their own constituencies is aimed at giving them a better understanding of the issues faced by their constituents and regional administrations.

The new law poses major challenges to regional representatives in exercising their legislative, budgeting and control functions.

Saldi Isra, a professor of constitutional law at Andalas University in Padang, West Sumatra, says if councilors can do good back in their home constituencies, then despite their limited constitutional rights, “they will become more legitimate than the [House] legislators”.

He adds the Council must also help deal with regional problems such as the mounting tension in Papua and the spreading Islamization of several regions, to maintain the country’s pluralism.

“The Council and its councilors must not turn a blind eye to the pressing Papua issue or the increased protests against the sharia-based bylaws [including one allowing the stoning to death of adulterers in Aceh],” he says.

As with House legislators, Saldi goes on, Council members enjoy immunity and the authority to look into any issue during their hearings with officials and fellow citizens.