Is Indonesian democracy really a paradox?

| Evan A. Laksmana | Singapore, 23 August 2008 |

On August 22, The Straits Times published a translated article on the paradox of democracy in Southeast Asian countries. The author made the point, among others, that Indonesia was among those that ‘advertise themselves as democracies’ but ‘do not seem to perform well’ and – citing Megawati’s surge in public polling – argued that since President Suharto’s fall in 1998, Indonesia ‘has not shown any obvious results.’

When one only considers the political development in Indonesia unraveling on the surface, these arguments cannot be said to be entirely without merit. Upon closer look however, the picture that emerges under the surface is more complex.

First of all, however, it should be remembered that democracy does not automatically come with good governance and the improvement of the general welfare. Indeed, the democracy we see today in America for example, evolved through centuries of trials and errors. One could easily conjure up the image of the American Civil War to remember that democracy does not come automatic, or ‘instantly’ for that matter.

Thus, it does not seem a fair assessment to judge Indonesia’s democracy – after only ten years of learning – as ‘not producing obvious results,’ or that the public has lost faith in the idea, as might be implicated from the article.

The article however does challenge us to ask a fundamental question: is Indonesia’s democracy really a paradox? Upon closer look, a more complicated answer quickly emerges.

On the one hand, it has to be acknowledged that Indonesia’s democracy is paradoxical in the sense that despite of the political liberalization thus far – as indicated inter alia by local and national direct elections and mushrooming of political parties – the economic, social, and even security sectors reform are to a certain extent seem sluggish.

On the other hand, it might not be so paradoxical in the sense that Indonesians have not entirely lost faith in the idea of democracy, or that democracy has failed to give anything to the country.

In fact, it should be noted that a research by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) showed that in May 2006, 72% of the public viewed democracy positively. In addition, the recent trend of the growing number of non-voters in local elections across the country suggests that the general public is becoming more politically aware and critical – something that could have never happened during President Suharto’s New Order.

Moreover, if democracy is seen as the ability to question and debate, and yes, even to criticize governmental policies, then Indonesia has fared well for the past decade.

Today, for the first time in decades, the role of a free media, critical non-governmental organizations, and intellectually liberated academicians are becoming crucial pillars that help shape policy debates and provide checks-and-balances vis-à-vis the local and national governments.

Thus, although it is true that Indonesia is still plagued by a myriad of problems, but democracy has allowed us to acknowledge those problems openly and publicly debate the solutions.

In that case, how then do we explain what appears to be a lack of progress in the non-political sector despite of the liberated political system after the fall of Mr. Suharto? First, a closer look at the political process suggests that this is mainly due to the growing gap between the political elite and the common people.

This in turn is mainly instigated by the transitory window of opportunity allowing old political elites to extricate and reconstitute themselves within the new system characterized by political parties and parliament. Thus, one could argue that this was basically a transition from a “sultanistic” authoritarian regime to an oligarchic system ruled by political party bosses.

Second, it seems ‘democracy’ has become a buzzword among local and national political elites –diverting attention from the more crucial issue of good governance, and a pretext for “horse-trading” politics among themselves. Thus, in reality, short-term realpolitik remains the norm.

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 Indonesia’s biggest political challenge.

However, this should not be construed as an indication that the idea of democracy itself has failed the country or that the Indonesian people have lost faith in it. In fact, it is precisely because Indonesia has implemented some democratic practices that Indonesians are able to publicly acknowledge, debate, and offer solutions to the nation’s multi-dimensional problems.

The debate however would be pointless without a clean, effective, and visionary political leadership, both in Jakarta and in the regions. This is something that Singapore is very fortunate to have. Meanwhile, Indonesia remains entangled with the last remnants of the ‘old guard’ of the 1998 reform movement deemed as corrupt and indecisive.

However, although observers are skeptical about these old establishment politicians, recently younger leaders began to emerge. This can be seen for example in the presidential self-nomination of Rizal Mallarangeng, director of Jakarta-based Freedom Institute and former student activist Fadjroel Rachman. Meanwhile, other younger leaders are entering the political parties and competing at the legislative race, including former student activist Budiman Sudjatmiko, and CSIS researcher Indra J. Pilliang.

Thus, in the end, we can see that although much work remains to be done to solve Indonesia’s problems, there are reasons to suggest that Indonesia should remain hopeful and not abandon democracy altogether. In fact, a move to turn back the clock on Indonesia’s democracy could be more disastrous for the country and the region as a whole.

For those who are puzzled with Indonesia, one should remember that post-Suharto Indonesia is far more complex to be understood within a 10-year timeframe and judging recent developments by mere Western-driven standards of democracy alone might be misleading. At the end of the day, one should always consider Indonesia’s historical experience and its ability to uniquely sort itself out of an entangled mess.

* author’s note: The tone of this piece is certainly an effort to ‘self-defend’ Indonesia’s democracy . Although it should be noted that there are currently plenty of flaws in the country’s ‘democratic consolidation’ phase, my simple annoyance was this: ‘only Indonesians should be allowed to criticize our own country’ ^_^]


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