Understanding Indonesia's 'democratic festival'

AS INDONESIA gears up for the polls this year, a swathe of studies and surveys have already made the rounds, giving an idea of the political climate at the moment and what observers can expect during this year's contest.

One recent survey that seems to have caused some alarm was carried out by the Indikator group. It showed that 41.5 per cent of the 15,600 people interviewed felt that it was perfectly acceptable to take money from those running for high office. For many observers, it was a worrying indication of just how deep and extensive the practice of vote-buying is in the biggest democracy in ASEAN.

While a figure of 41.5 per cent may cause some jitters among those who hoped that Indonesia's democratic experiment would lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the rules and norms of the democratic process, I have to confess that I was not surprised by the results.

In the course of my own fieldwork in Indonesia over the last decade, I have seen such behaviour often enough.

Just because a voter accepts a monetary bribe does not mean that he or she would vote for the candidate concerned. Quite simply, for many ordinary Indonesians who are struggling to make ends meet, any cash handout by any candidate would be welcome, any time.

Multiple party membership

I HAVE also come across many instances of behaviour that would confound those who believe that democracy has to fit one, and only one, mould or template. In Indonesia I personally know of many friends and acquaintances who happen to belong to not one, but several political parties.

This has occasioned many a mirthful moment, when my friends open their wallets and proudly show off the many party membership cards they carry.

Such behaviour may seem illogical to those schooled in the Western model of democracy.

It would be inconceivable, for example, for someone in Britain to belong to both the Conservative and Labour parties simultaneously. But in Indonesia it is not only possible, but also more common than one thinks. So is party- hopping, where supporters may jump from one party to another, depending on which offers them the most.

This raises the rather obvious question: What, then, are elections for in Indonesia? And what do people get out of it?

Function of elections

WELL, elections remain the main way through which those who aspire to high office seek a popular mandate. They provide the seal of public approval and respectability for those seeking power.

If elections were a meaningless exercise, one would have to ask why they were held during the New Order era, when Indonesia was effectively under an authoritarian military-backed rule. Even at the height of authoritarian power in Indonesia, legitimacy was the one thing that the New Order regime needed.

The ritual of elections was repeated time and again - despite the fact that the myriad of political groupings in the country had been conflated into three large parties.

Power could not be maintained by the threat of force and violence alone. Even the army-backed government realised that it needed public consent - no matter how ritualistic it was - in order to govern.

Ritualised gift-giving

ORDINARY Indonesians, on the other hand, happen to get quite a lot from the election process. Indeed, since 1998, a virtual local industry has emerged as a result of Indonesia's shift towards democratic populism.

Polling agencies, survey agencies and election-managing agencies have mushroomed all over the country. Almost all of the political parties in Indonesia today have grown street-wise and media- savvy. They have come to accept the power of the media and the need for symbolism in their campaigns.

This has been a boon to local producers of T-shirts, caps, umbrellas, banners and flags all over the country. Every election season, this massive industry begins to produce all kinds of election-related party-political paraphernalia for the millions of potential voters who will be wooed by politicians who behave like love-struck Casanovas.

There is no reason to think that this local culture of ritualised (and public) gift-giving will end any time soon.

Instead, it will probably intensify even further during the election campaign this year.

Desk-bound analysts who fervently believe in democratic norms set in stone may baulk at the thought of a nationwide gift-giving spree that follows other party-political events like dangdut music concerts, karaoke competitions and the like.

Democracy and culture

BUT this misses the point that has been raised by political sociologists and anthropologists time and again: the norms of democracy have to be adjusted and adapted to the locality in which it is practised.

Indonesia is hardly unique. The same phenomenon can be seen in many other Asian countries.

Two further considerations come to mind at this point. The first is that Indonesia's path to democracy is, and has to be, determined by Indonesians themselves.

And the path must be followed according to cultural norms that they themselves understand and appreciate.

This is not an apology for cultural particularism. Nor is it an argument for an ''Asian-centric'' understanding of democracy that excuses distortions or compromises to the fundamental tenets of democracy.

Nobody would suggest that bribe-giving is acceptable simply because it has been going on for ages. Nor should democratic processes be adapted to corruption.

But the findings of the Indikator survey show that people's expectations in Indonesia are indeed different, and this ought to elicit more study into the popular culture that surrounds the democratic process.

The danger of populism

THE second consideration relates to Indonesia's democratic culture, which has become progressively more populist in its character and appeal. At the core of the democratic process is the belief that the popular will is paramount and that the voice of the majority should be heard.

But as Indonesia's campaign intensifies in the weeks and months to come, there is also concern that populism will be the determining factor in the conduct of the campaign. This could produce hyper- nationalism and exclusive majoritarianism, in which minorities become the targets of populist politicians who eye the majority vote.

These ought to be the real concerns, for they may be the variables that determine what sort of country Indonesia will be after the elections.

This year's elections may well be a major turning point in the country's history. They will certainly indicate the extent to which citizens of that massive and complex nation are able to bring into office a stable government after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's two successive terms.

He came to power after a string of weak governments that buckled under the pressure of competing internal forces.

Indeed, the 2014 elections could be the turning point that decides not only Indonesia's fate, but ASEAN's as well.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies RSIS, Nanyang Technological University.


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