Indonesia’s tainted democracy calls for changes

Rizal Ramli, Jakarta Post| Tue, 03/29/2011 9:18 PM | Opinion

Recent revelations from WikiLeaks documents, stating that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his family were involved in corruption are, frankly, not a big surprise.

After all, Indonesian politics is notoriously dirty.

Yudhoyono and his advisors have tried to play down the scandal, but make no mistake about it: Since the news about the palace shenanigans has hit the streets, the outlook for Yudhoyono’s presidency until the 2014 elections has been very bleak.

Until recently, mainstream opinion about Yudhoyono had been that he was a weak leader but he remained popular because of the common belief that he possessed that rarest of commodities in Indonesian politics: integrity.

But now that a shadow has been cast over his reputation as an honest character, people are starting to wonder if he deserves to stay in office until the end of his term.

Even if Yudhoyono were dishonest and not the leader everybody hoped he was, one could at least find a good reason to support him if his administration had made some decent progress in national development.

Sadly, the quality of life in Indonesia has declined under Yudhoyono’s leadership.

Although economic growth has been respectable, less than 20 percent of the population lives comfortably while the vast majority must continuously struggle to make ends meet.

Even menial jobs are difficult to find and the average income remains very low. Prices of staple foods and daily necessities have been increasing over the past year, leading to an increase in poverty.

Not only has life become more difficult for the average Indonesian under Yudhoyono’s watch, but we have also witnessed a return to the excesses of power that plagued the country under the former Soeharto regime.

The “legal mafia” — a commonly used reference to organized crime throughout the country’s legal system — remains a constant menace and prevents us from becoming a more humane and just society.

In fact, the legal mafia is a cabal of influential private attorneys, officials within the police, the prosecutor’s office and the judiciary. As a result, the law is conveniently ineffective when applied to elite citizens with money and power.

Many thoughtful observers believe that we can no longer afford to ignore Yudhoyono’s failures as a president. Our acceptance of his shortcomings is an act of collective irresponsibility and ensures us of continued decay.

What we are witnessing today is the spreading of the seeds of national disintegration. In turn, this could translate into Indonesia becoming a failed state.

Former Soviet Union president Gorbachev was known as a very judicious leader who was praised by Western leaders. He was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

His weak leadership, however, was blamed for runaway unemployment, a dramatic loss of public welfare and, eventually, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While Indonesia enjoys plaudits from the international community for being one of the largest democracies in the world, I would argue that beyond the right to vote in elections there are few other reasons to wax eloquent about our particular brand of freedom.

So while we may be categorized as an electoral democracy, there is another sobering reality that needs to be addressed: While Indonesians have the right to vote, their votes have only bought them what is best described as a “tainted democracy”.

What this means for the average citizen is that the system is only successful at increasing the wealth of crony businessmen, executive officials and legislators — hence defeating the core principle of democracy itself, which is government for the people.

For those Indonesians who care deeply about the future of our country, it has become painfully clear that the reformist movement needs to be reinvigorated.

Civil society must unite to voice their discontent and demand political change.

Change is the only solution for containing a tainted democracy, weak leadership and a troubled government.

Political change can oust small self-interested elitist groups and champion efforts to make democracy work genuinely in the interests of the people.

The process for political change, however, does not require a coup or an overthrow of government. A coup can only be carried out with guns or by military forces.

Far-reaching change can be endorsed effectively by strong public support through a peaceful and non-violent approach.

If Indonesians can manage to gain ownership of their democracy, it would set a great example for the rest of the world.

In 1998, Indonesia took the bold step by moving out of the shadows of authoritarian rule.

Similar transitions are beginning to take shape in the Arab world. Now a new, equally important transition needs to take place in Indonesia for others to see: The replacement of the elite that only makes a mockery of our hard-earned political freedom.

Indonesia can still become one of the greatest nations in Asia, but Indonesians must now understand that it is their individual responsibility as citizens to stand up for their rights and keep pushing for change until democracy can work for their own welfare.

If change toward a better quality democracy materializes, Indonesia could again show the world that our democracy is capable of self-correction toward the establishment of genuine social justice.

The writer was the coordinating economic, financial and industrial affairs minister during the presidency of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. He is a political observer.

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