Lifting the veil on Indonesian ‘democracy’

The Jakarta Post, Monday, June 2, 2008

Evan A. Laksmana

The fuel prices rise of almost 30 percent was finally announced last week. This highly unpopular move will certainly affect all people, especially the poor, in the country.

The policy indicates the growing gap between the political elite and Indonesian people. Another indication was the “study trip” by Indonesian legislators to Latin America costing tax payers thousands of dollars amidst the government’s plan to raise fuel prices.

After ten years of political reform, why is the gap between the political elites and the people increasing? Shouldn’t a democracy reflect proximity between the elected officials and their constituents?

Moreover, the current political system was supposed to help solve the multidimensional crisis that hit Indonesia over a decade ago. What is the hold up?

A closer look at the political process and public sentiment beyond the elections of the past decade allows us to discern several possible answers behind this democratic veil.

First, the nature of the political transition after the fall of Soeharto in 1998 created a window of opportunity. Old political elites have been able to extricate and reconstitute themselves within the new system characterized by political parties and parliament. It was basically a transition from a “sultanistic” authoritarian regime to an oligarchic system ruled by political party bosses. In other words, we went from a rock to hard place.

Second, it seems “democracy” has become a buzzword diverting attention from the more crucial issue of good governance and a pretext for “horse-trading” politics among local and national elites. This has led to public resentment, which, if not remedied, could erode public trust in the idea of democracy itself.

Third, a decentralized democratic political system has never fully materialized because local elites continue to jockey for power and wealth, and the economic sector and welfare continues to deteriorate. This is the opposite to the initial vision of regional autonomy where officials tended to local constituents, who were often neglected by the Jakarta-based political elites.

Finally, despite the argument favoring a consociational political system aimed at achieving stability, the result has been the opposite. The political system is now more unstable and unpredictable because of the predatory nature of the oligarchic post-Soeharto system, which has meant that short-term realpolitik, rather than political party platforms, is the norm.

These are the main reasons why we are witnessing a growing gap between the political elite and the people in general.

Moreover, it appears that political liberalization, as indicated by the hundreds of new political parties, has not been followed by proper political management and regulation. This is perhaps the main reason why elites continue to strive for their own benefit as the people continues to suffer.

Therefore, despite the significant progress of political reform over the past decade, a stable political system that is accountable to its constituents and is focused on good governance remains an elusive notion.

Although some have argued that the new election laws were aimed at creating a stable multiparty system based around seven to eight major political factions in parliament, how this will be implemented remains to be seen.

Therefore, the next phase in Indonesia’s democratic development should be to focus on the issue of democratic good governance, which would shift the oligarchic nature of the political system and the power of party bosses to the people.

How should we go about doing this though? There is no easy answer or a handbook to tackle this question as all the above mentioned problems are structural. The fact that the current system entrenches the entire political elite makes it hard for any significant progress in the near future.

One alternative solution is to remedy the process of regional autonomy to truly follow the spirit of democratic decentralization. One could argue that this has not been the case because local officials “owe” their election to the Jakarta-based political parties supporting their candidacy. Thus, one could debate whether a local political party is the answer to this conundrum.

However, another possible long-term solution is the academic, civic and political education of the younger generation. More and more, the younger generation are becoming more skeptical about the political process, which they see as corrupt and a waste of their time.

Moreover, some of the Indonesia’s best and brightest are actually being lured out of the country by better opportunities abroad. Unfortunately, without these future leaders, Indonesia’s political system will remain locked in a cycle of corruption.

The growing gap between the political elites at the national and local level and the people at large remains Indonesia’s biggest political challenge. The oligarchic nature of the current system excludes genuine representation of a wide array of citizens and the vast majority of the population. As long as these issues are not addressed it seems absurd to continue calling Indonesia a “democratic country.”

The writer is a research analyst for the Indonesia program at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He can be reached at


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