Tue, 29 Jul 2003

A partisan president

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, Journalist, Jakarta

The office of the president, despite the corruption of its powers during the Sukarno and Soeharto eras, remains very much an icon of national sovereignty and dignity. With the advent of direct presidential elections in 2004, it will become the paramount embodiment of the democratic process.

Critics have argued that the recently passed laws on the election of the president only augment the role of the big political parties. They decry the fact that under the present arrangements individual candidates have no avenue for representation and all potential nominees have to succumb to the hegemony of the party system.

Despite the altruistic intentions of this argument, experience in more advanced democracies has shown us that the solid linkage between a president and a political party often becomes a necessity rather than a luxury for the maintenance of an effective and stable government.

The president should not only serve as a beacon of national purpose, the chief executive and head of the armed forces, he should also function as the country's political boss. In other words the president must become a focus of steady political leadership in a system where the House of Representatives (DPR) is susceptible to the sway of centrifugal forces in a political environment fraught with antagonism.

It is predicted that the post-2004 legislature will remain divided in patchy political coalitions with no single party having a majority. If the nationalist-secularist parties (Golkar and PDI-P), who are expected to at least occupy a combined 40 percent to 50 percent of seats in the House, cannot coalesce to forge a common political agenda, divisions will only be further heightened. This fragmentation represents both a threat and an opportunity for the incumbent president.

The threat results from the likely pressures that could be brought to bear upon the executive as a result of these divisive fissures along party lines. The opportunity lies in the prospect of the president imposing leadership to rally legislators given the absence of a predominant faction within the House.

In a system where the legislature has de facto equal powers of persuasion to the executive, it thus becomes necessary for the president to play politics. Whenever possible, it is important for the president to marshal his political arsenal to guide the legislature -- within the bounds of propriety and without subverting the fundamental principle of checks and balances -- so as to ensure the effective running of government.

The primary lesson of the Abdurrahman Wahid administration must be that any president who is personally or politically incapable of maintaining amicable cooperation with the House is a liability to the country.

Apart from the executive's prerogative powers and privileges to make appointments, the president's most effective weapon of persuasion vis-a-vis the House is his function as a leading figure, if not the chief, of a political party. As party chief, the president has a foothold in the affairs of the House. The president can also take advantage of his party position to bridge the constitutional ambivalence in the relationship between the different branches of government.

The president's dabbling in politics is, unfortunately, a necessary evil. The image of our chief executive plowing the political field -- stroking unsavory politicians, calling and handing out favors for the sake of political expedience, and even endorsing candidates of little worth -- is a reality that must be faced if the president is seeking to run a government relatively free of House interdiction. Such practical necessities can only be effective if the president has established ties with political parties.

Beyond the general elections, the president -- despite having been legitimately elected by the plurality -- cannot draw his power from such woolly sources of influence. Electoral prowess is only effective immediately before or after the ballot process. In the intervening years it is the clout of the political parties that will determine the sway of a legislature. Consequently, the president's power is rooted in his position as party chief.

It is questionable whether an "independent candidate", as sought by our critical friends, could govern effectively in such an environment. It is a situation that cannot be wished away by utopian dreams. It is the prevailing reality, one that is the rule, rather than the exception, in similar systems around the world.

A president must thrive within a complex network of political constituents. His inherent powers as chief executive can help to prop up his authority, but this alone may be insufficient in the political battlefield. The chief executive must have other sources of persuasion (a dominant political party) in order to buttress his standing before the legislature or face the prospect of becoming a lame-duck president.

The writer is managing editor with Jakarta-based consultancy firm Van Zorge, Heffernan and Associates.