It looked like a case of déjà vu when Democratic Party leaders, gearing up for the party’s extraordinary congress in Bali next week, expressed their hopes for a unanimous decision on a successor for Anas Urbaningrum, who resigned as party chairman after being named a corruption suspect last month.
Syariefuddin Hasan, a member of the party’s supreme council, foretold the likely scenario of the change of leader after a meeting called by the party’s paramount council chairman, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on March 17. Since then, the issue has become a trending topic, at least among executives and rank-and-file Democrats. “God willing, there will be a consensus. Pray that there will be no turmoil,” said Syariefuddin, who is also the cooperatives and small and medium enterprises minister.
Those who take Syariefuddin and his statement lightly will be disappointed. Just before the shock of Anas being implicated and his subsequent exit from the party’s top post, Syariefuddin and fellow party patrons put pressure on Anas to step down, citing the party’s nose-diving popularity.
Other party executives like Johnny Allen Marbun and Max Sopacua, but not those linked to Anas, joined the chorus of support for the mechanism to elect a new chairman. The party’s leader at the House of Representatives, Nurhayati Ali Assegaf, went further by tipping First Lady Ani Yudhoyono as the sole candidate.
“Consensus is not necessarily undemocratic. If 80 percent of voters support a particular candidate, a decision is already reached. Voting would be a waste of time in that case,” Nurhayati said.
Such an attitude is reminiscent of Indonesia’s Pancasila-based democracy practiced under President Soeharto, who until the final year of his reign, maintained his distaste of the “50 percent plus one” type of democracy adopted in the West, putting his trust instead in the consensus process as the true embodiment of democracy.
Soeharto was the first to coin the term “rounded democracy” as an ideal national policy-making process typified by consensus, as opposed to “oval democracy”, which refers to decision-making through voting. It came ahead of the General Session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to elect a vice president in 1988, when the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) insisted on contesting the post by nominating its chairman, Jaelani Naro, despite Soeharto’s clear preference for his minister/state secretary Soedharmono.
Soeharto said he wanted a vice president who was unanimously elected by the MPR, hence all the people, because the second man in command would have to be ready to replace him at any time.
To everybody’s delight, Naro dropped his bid at the last minute, saving the day for rounded democracy.
When addressing 500 elected House members at the State Palace on Aug. 9, 1997, Soeharto reiterated the need to preserve rounded democracy for the sake of political stability. Liberal democracy, he said, only resulted in instability as evident in the frequent changes of government, which would give the nation no chance to begin development.
Debate was not prohibited under Pancasila democracy, but it had to lead to a consensus, according to Soeharto. None of the elected House members, some of them perhaps still serving today albeit under different party banners, dared to challenge Soeharto’s teaching, which is today perceived as a defiance of democracy.
Challenges to rounded democracy did claim their victims. The Armed Forces chief of sociopolitical affairs, Lt. Gen. Harsudiono Hartas, lost his post and career for campaigning for Armed Forces commander Gen. Try Sutrisno as the vice-presidential candidate in 1993, while Soeharto had opted for his technology and research minister, BJ Habibie. Try won Soeharto’s endorsement anyway, but the reelected president only entrusted him with low-key supervisory jobs.
During his five-year term, Try went overseas only once — to Australia. When Soeharto could not attend the ASEAN informal meeting in 1997 due to ill health, he assigned foreign minister Ali Alatas to represent Indonesia.
Democratic Party elites may have learned from democracy à la Soeharto, which emphasizes unity and minimizes, if not curtails, differences. Yudhoyono who, like Soeharto, was an Army general, is no exception.
The party is enduring its worst crisis ever with only one year left until the 2014 legislative election; some have described it as a sinking ship, with one executive after another being convicted or implicated in corruption cases. Various surveys have forecast its falling behind the Golkar Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), two parties that grew up under Soeharto’s New Order regime.
Yudhoyono and his loyalists may push for a consensus to support a sole candidate to avoid internal splits, which would jeopardize the party’s consolidation agenda. More importantly, allowing a contender to join the race will only give Anas room to maneuver and spoil the agenda.
Anas has traumatized Yudhoyono. Despite his apparent preference for Andi Mallarangeng for the party chief’s post in 2010 Yudhoyono, as a champion of democracy, had no choice but to allow Anas to contest the election — which he then won.
Many believe, however, that despite his isolation, Anas’ influence on the party’s grass roots should not be underestimated. His bargaining power appears to remain intact, given the fact that the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has yet to arrest him.
History teaches us the clear lesson that consensus is prone to abuses of power to nullify differences and suppress opposition; oftentimes under the guise of “national” or “greater” interests. In the past, consensus led to a fake democracy.
The upcoming extraordinary congress is a real test for the Democrats to prove their commitment to democracy, which may be costly. Many will be unhappy with the results of democracy, which will never please everybody all of the time.
My feeling, however, is that the Democrats will propose and unanimously elect a sole candidate handpicked by Yudhoyono. I hope, I will be proved wrong.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.