Sat, 15 Jan 2000

A learning process

Strained relations between President Abdurrahman Wahid and Muslim-oriented political parties show that democracy is very much alive here. The rift is also teaching those involved that they still have much to learn about navigating the political currents of newfound openness.

The development resulted from the uproar over Maluku. The tragic sectarian conflict has enraged many Muslim politicians in Jakarta, who consider people from their faith to have suffered the most in the strife.

Their fervent reaction has struck a discordant note with many, including the President. Gus Dur, as the President is popularly known, was particularly irritated by calls for a jihad made at the mass rally at the National Monument on the eve of the Idul Fitri holiday.

Besides calling for a holy war, the thousands of members of political parties also demanded Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri's resignation because of her perceived inaction in putting an end to the violence.

A clearly irked Gus Dur considered the rally to be part of a campaign to unseat him. The leaders of the parties involved, who were apparently taken aback by his reaction, said in their defense that the call was meant to push the government to act quickly and firmly to put an end to the hostilities.

The President's indignant response appears to have been effective; Muslim organizations have subsequently expressed their opinions in a more moderate, cool-headed way. But what lingers is the earlier contentious approach of some groups, which was unpleasant, if not to say alarming.

Many social and political groups have gone overboard in their zeal to capitalize on freedom. Some observers have taken a magnanimous view of the development, considering it understandable that the country's more than 200 million people would be caught up in the desire to shout out their grievances after more than 30 years of choking silence under Soeharto.

Unfortunately, "mob politics" -- some might term it pandering to the masses, others call it rabble-rousing -- has been part of the trend. Groups have tried to impose their ideas on others through intimidation, with taking to the streets the most popular ploy.

The question now is whether this approach is relevant after a predominantly fair general election -- the first in this country since 1955 -- in June? Why do some believe they have to resort to intimidation or flout the law to push their ideas and moral standards on others when they have elected representatives to speak for them? Their actions show a distrust, if not cynicism, for the tenets of democracy in our country, the legislative system and the general election on which so many hopes were realized.

One only has to look at our reality to find their doubts are unfounded. An effective government is now at work and many positive steps have been made to redress the devastation Soeharto left behind. It is also clear that those holding the protest rallies are the same old people, professing to speak on behalf of their religion as if they are the only ones who can claim to be part of the faithful. A more ironic, telling truth is that those now taking issue with the present administration were the apologists and supporters of B.J. Habibie's bungling administration.

Last week's call for a jihad may do little to undermine Gus Dur's position among most Indonesians, but it hid the compassionate character of Islam to the world, unwittingly stoking the misperceptions which continue to prevail in the West.

Of course, we do not expect everything to run perfectly during an untested period when we are learning what it means to exercise democracy. We understand that these are still early days for all of us. The media, for example, must learn not to overreach its limits, and the President likewise has to learn how to speak in a more statesmanly manner.

But, as we take these faltering steps to a more just society, we must also recognize that we would be turning back the clock to a Soeharto-style authoritarianism if there is a group among us who claims to have a corner on the truth.