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The Jakarta Post
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For Indonesia’s democracy, time is running out

  • Rizal Ramli

Jakarta | Tue, April 10 2012 | 10:52 am

When Indonesia’s students took to the streets in 1998 and won their battle for the overthrow of Soeharto, there was jubilation on campuses across the country.

Not long before then, most Indonesians had difficulty imagining a time when the patriarch of the New Order would not dominate their lives.

More than a decade later, we have learned that although the so-called Smiling General is no longer with us and memories of his egregious rule have started to fade in memory, the vestiges of his regime still haunt us.

Far worse, the outlook for Indonesia becoming a well-functioning democracy is fast deteriorating.

The incumbent President, who will have served 10 years by the time the 2014 election is upon us, has done little to serve the cause of improving Indonesia’s hard-earned democracy.

And, if we cast our eyes upon the current playing field of presidential hopefuls, it is also apparent that the chances for real political change under a new administration are slim.

Why Indonesia continues to suffer from a dysfunctional democracy is a valid question. We are allowed to go to the polls and vote for our national and local leaders, the judiciary (at least in theory) is an independent branch of the government and, hence, should be able to instill the rule of law, and the media is able to function without political pressure or control by politicians.

Still, everybody can quite easily see that our leaders have no sense of public duty or responsibility and view their powerful positions primarily as a means to enrich themselves.

Too often, judges in our courts are swayed into making rulings based on the checkbook, not justice. Minors go to jail for minor infractions, yet if one has the good fortune to be close to the levers of power, then the law can easily be twisted to escape punishment, even for the most heinous of felonies.

The elite talk incessantly about the successes of Indonesia’s economy — but who are the real beneficiaries?

Jakarta boasts of world-class shopping malls, international schools and its streets are full of imported luxury cars, but the harsh reality is that most Indonesians barely get by on their meager salaries and have few prospects for improving their lives.

The answer to why Indonesia suffers from an unjust and unfair democracy is, in fact, simple. Yes, Soeharto has long been buried, but many of his cronies and their offspring live on and thrive in the new Indonesia.

Their mindset, much like the one that prevailed under the New Order, is that the state is an instrument of power to be reserved solely for their clan and its vested interests.

In the past, Soeharto silenced his critics and aspiring reformists by throwing them into jail.

Today, the new leaders who wish to fight for a better Indonesia are not behind bars, but their efforts are being severely hampered by a powerful majority who use legislation as a means of maintaining the status quo.

The most compelling example of how Indonesia’s corrupt elites preserve their power is the nation’s electoral laws for the presidency. At the end of the day, the person who has the potential to set the tone and pace for change is the president.

The presidential office, above all others, has the advantage of giving the nation’s leader a “bully pulpit” to advocate an agenda.

Because of the prestige, stature and publicity accorded to a president, he or she has the potential to bring issues to the forefront for serious debate.

Sadly, this potential of the presidential office has either been grossly ignored or abused by Indonesia’s leaders for purposes that contradict what Indonesians dream of as a better future.

Now, as we look forward to the 2014 election, one can only wonder if we will continue to remain stuck in a vicious cycle of false hope espoused by jaded elites that are long on the talk of democracy, but fall remarkably short of action once they enter office.

If, indeed, the old elite is able to continue to monopolize the office of the presidency in 2014, the outlook for Indonesia’s democracy is a bleak one. Counting from the year when the reform era began, we face the prospect of a lost generation in our political development.

For meaningful change to occur after 2014, we must begin now to place intense pressure on the government to amend the electoral laws.

The oligopoly of political parties that are able to dictate who can run for the presidency needs to be broken. Voters must be given a greater choice of whom they would like to become Indonesia’s next president.

Of course, we cannot expect the national leadership to change the electoral laws on their own accord. They passed these laws for a reason — they know in their heart of hearts that if a wider playing field were allowed and some new faces appeared in the elections, they would run the risk of losing their coveted positions of power.

In public, they are saying that only candidates from the larger parties should be allowed to run because they are the most experienced.

In return, we should ask these same people, what type of experience are they really talking about? Experience in having learned to steal from the nation’s public coffers and making backroom deals without taking into account the public interest?

The consequence of no change in our electoral laws is no change in our politics. As the largest and most influential player in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s largest democracies, we need to install a new generation of leaders to prove to our people and our neighbors that democracy is truly the best form of governance to improve our livelihoods and welfare.

Without this, we will have no business calling ourselves a nation of the future.

The writer is a former coordinating economic minister.


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