The Jakarta Post
With the 2014 election on the horizon, more party elites being suspects of corruption and the public perception of parties and politicians at an all time low, one may justifiably wonder if the next election, or any election, can bring real change.
If elections are competitions among parties and if parties are corrupt and untrustworthy to advance society's interests, how can one expect something good to emerge from them?
Interestingly, that the parties are perceived as untrustworthy cannot be more different than what early theorists of democracy predicted. Early thinkers such as Alexander Hamilton and Henry John Bolingbroke were very worried that parties would be so committed to their constituents so as to ignite hostilities between social groups and collapse the state.
Parties, thus, are evil things that must be halted by installing a magistrate of supreme virtue as ruler whose justness will overcome all conflicts in society.
In Indonesia, we need to look no further than the people who champion a religious state. They believe that a divine law or ruler will solve all the country's problems. Unfortunately, since mankind is fallible, giving freedom to humans entails giving them opportunities to make mistakes both in their actions and opinions.
No law or ruler, no matter how just or good, can prevent the emergence of disagreement and conflicting interests. Consequently, parties as political vehicles of societal groups will always be different from one another.
But then why do Indonesian parties all look the same? For example, a 2011 survey by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) found that voters were getting more detached from and skeptical of parties in general.
It is also hard to differentiate the parties in terms of policies. All parties put on a pro-poor display and prefer to show a moderate centrist image. That's why we've seen Islamic parties eventually abandon their pursuit to gain formal recognition of the Jakarta Charter ' a document that would require Muslims to live by Islamic laws ' and supposedly secular parties race to endorse religious bylaws. If parties are just following the wind ' ready any time to abandon their core constituents to get a better vote share ' why should voters believe that parties care about something other than reaching power?
There is a short-term strategy to hold parties more accountable: by making them parts again. Party elites opt to resemble each other because they realize it is easier to share power than to compete for it.
Endorsing different ideologies or policies means competition and in competition there are always winners and losers. In a regime with power-sharing, much like Indonesia, on the other hand, everyone gets a slice of power. The only losers are the people. They can still vote, but their votes do not matter much because regardless of which party wins, the policies will remain the same.
It is therefore in the interest of the voters to counter the top-down incentive of power-sharing with a more bottom-up incentive. Voters need to show the parties that their votes are worth fighting for.
Party elites are the ones setting the direction of a party, but voters can reward the party for moving toward them and punish it for moving away from them, hence indirectly influencing its direction.
If parties become parts again, true competition can manifest and each party would answer only to specific constituencies rather than the whole electorate. A more specific accountability mechanism will grant the voters more control over the parties' directions.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) can play their part, too. To take religious freedom as an example, CSOs could publish a list of regional heads, along with their parties, who are the least and most accommodating in terms of worship house permits.
Some CSOs already report religious freedom violations, but such reports will be more politically consequential if they also acclaim and inform the voters about regional heads and their parties who are supportive of religious diversity.
By doing so, the CSOs send a message to political elites that protecting religious freedom can also be politically rewarding. This kind of appreciation will help counteract the political incentives offered by radical groups.
It is democracy's bitter truth that one cannot expect righteousness to prevail unless one also ensures that being righteous has political benefits.
The spirit in all this effort is to make parties parts again. When parties are no longer similar to each other, voters will have choices ' real choices. To get there, voters must contribute.
They need to be less apathetic. They need to not only punish but also reward parties for doing things they think are right. CSOs can help voters do their job by highlighting issues in which parties take different routes, hence reinforcing those differences.
They also need to bring into the spotlight politicians who stand out from the crowd [both in the positive and negative senses of the words], such as by keeping politicians' score cards, commonly used in the US congress. It is basically devide et impera applied in reverse to the powerful: parting parties so they can be better ruled.
The writer is a former summer data analyst at US President Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign headquarters.