The Malady of Ignorance? Indonesian Parliament During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Parliament roles and ‘business as usual’ during pandemic

Under the Indonesian Constitution Article 20A Paragraph 1, the legislative branch of the government (Parliament) has 3 functions: legislation, budgetary and monitoring.  How do these functions come into play when governing amidst a pandemic? How have their representative roles been at play with regards to their political constituents?

What we read in the news is that MPs perform their routine activities in a ‘business as usual’ mode. For example, legalising the state budget during the plenary meeting held on Indonesian Independence Day (17 August 2020); legalising the controversial Omnibus Law; and supporting legislative processes like upgrading government regulations into Law and/or compiling national legislation programs (Prolegnas) for the next year. Parliament also carries out the budgetary process, another routine role.  Aside from their routine activities and several distasteful news items about how the family members of Parliament are given priority for vaccine inoculations, the Legislative branch has little to show for pandemic-related activities.

The only non-routine activity Parliament has conducted is establishing an ad-hoc COVID-19 group in Parliament. It distributed imported herbal medicine to hospitals despite the medicines having no permits from the Food and Medicine authority, causing a protest from herbal medicine entrepreneurs. It has not capitalised on its legislative powers effectively, if at all.

The monitoring function of Parliament is also sorely lacking during this pandemic. Parliament’s official web site lists several meetings and field visits for COVID-19, but public information on how Parliament is monitoring pandemic management in Indonesia is scarce. Where information is provided, it describes  global diplomacy—how Indonesia has been assisting other countries during the pandemic, practically detaching itself from the struggle of its own citizens.

During this pandemic, “losing” these key Parliamentary functions has exacerbated the lack of “checks and balances”. Indonesia has three branches of government that are supposed to be independent from one another, in order to “check and balance” each other.

The Judicial branch is currently struggling with the pandemic but has managed to stay afloat by organizing electronic and/or hybrid judicial system services. The Executive branch has enacted at least 681 national regulations and more than 1,000 regional/local regulations on Covid-19, so far. The State fund budget re-allocation in 2020 increased to IDR 62.3 trillion (US$ 3.9 billion), from the initially-planned value of IDR 23 trillion (US$ 1.2 billion).

In addition, Indonesia faces problems of political representation. Indonesian electoral politics is widely known to operate on a personality level, rather than an institutional one. “Representative democracy” is a concept foreign to many Indonesians. During the legislative election, people often vote for a candidate either because of a personal relationship or because of vote buying practices. As a result, politicians deem voters useful once every five years at election time. Upon election, it is rare for politicians to maintain strong relationship with their constituencies, apart from formal constituency meetings allocated and funded by house’s budget. Therefore, during the post-election policy-making processes, the aspirations and needs of constituents are rarely, if ever, important aspects for legislating MPs to consider in conducting their three main roles. From the constituents’ perspective, there is a general lack of awareness that having and exercising political representation in Parliament can push policy agendas, not just those concerning COVID-19.

Media outlets and the general population ignore the fact that Parliament has a role in pandemic governance.  We tracked Google trends of online public conversations, using conversation keywords such as ‘corona virus’, ‘government’ and ‘Parliament’. Our findings indicate that “Parliament” was neither a keyword nor a heavily-searched issue of interest. Few people talked about this important democratic institution online. Indonesians are typically think that the “government” only comprises Jokowi (the President) and his ministers—governors, mayors, civil servant officials, etc. We often forget that Parliament is also responsible for pandemic governance in Indonesia, even though they have spent a significant amount of our state’s budget on this. This is surprising, given that it costs IDR25 .6 trillion (US$ 1.8 billion), or almost 3 times West Papua’s local revenue in 2020, to elect Parliament.

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Three courses of action

There is an urgent need to hold Parliament responsible for organizing their basic duties during this pandemic.  As the legislative branch of the government, and as representatives of the Indonesian people, Parliament must perform “checks and balances” on other branches of the government and report those results to the public. They must represent the needs of Indonesian people, especially now, to the Executive and Judicial branches of the government. They should conduct dialogue, hold meetings, and support and review new regulations concerning policies related to the pandemic. The more dialogue and discussions are organised, the more engaged the stakeholders and the people to the information and issue of the government during the pandemic. This ensures the security, sustainability, and transparency of government, improving the public’s access to numerous essential services, such as health care, education welfare, and justice.

To achieve this, at least three actors must be simultaneously involved—the State, political parties and citizens. Firstly, the state should have clear indicators for the allocation of subsidies to parties, based on parties’ representative performance. The more actively MPs engage their constituents, the better. Of course, this will not be popular among politicians. Secondly, parties, including their cadres, should recognise the incentive that attending to voters’ needs offers to those who want to win elections, although pragmatics voters are also hurdles in Indonesian elections. Parties, as institutions, should consistently champion standpoints favourable to their respective constituencies, not just during elections but even post-elections. This will make parties more responsive to their constituents, and forge a unifying function among their constituents. Thirdly, citizens must actively hold their representatives to account, particularly during this pandemic, by demanding their elected leaders to take more active roles during the pandemic instead of serving their own interests.

More on Indonesia’s COVID-19 response

COVID-19 is eroding Indonesian local media’s role as watchdog

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Governing a pandemic: centre-regional relations and Indonesia’s COVID-19 response

The current arrangements slow initial local responses without a corresponding payoff.

Gendering Indonesia’s responses to COVID-19: Preliminary thoughts

The approach used in the creation of these policies ignores that women may face more difficulty in accessing the promised benefits.