Sun, 05 Sep 1999

Charting political parties in a new era

API, Almanak Parpol Indonesia, Pemilu 1999 (Almanac of Indonesian Political Parties, 1999 Elections); Coordinator: Julia I. Suryakusuma; Published by API, Jakarta , 1999; 729 pp; Rp 50,000.

JAKARTA (JP): The fall of Soeharto in May 1998 served as a catalyst for the sudden rebirth of Indonesian political parties. More than 100 political parties were established around the country, something which was unimaginable during the repressive Soeharto era.

For more than 30 years, Indonesians knew only three parties: Islamic-oriented United Development Party (PPP), ruling Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the nationalist party formed from the fusion of parties in the 1970s. The latter occurred because of the emphasis on being one and unified in the New Order's development strategy.

The multiparty era was absent for more than 40 years after the country's first president, Sukarno, dismissed the Constituent, a legislative body which represented parties from the first election in 1955, in 1959. Sukarno and the Army believed that debates between the nationalist and Islamic factions in the Constituent would foment political tensions and also cause a breakdown in society.

API, an association of 13 non-governmental organizations led by prominent feminist Julia I. Suryakusuma, set out in this work to record all the political parties founded in the transition era. No less than 148 parties were established within the first nine months of B.J. Habibie's presidency, but seven of them did not meet the criterion. Eventually, only 48 political parties were declared eligible to contest the 1999 elections by the General Elections Commission (KPU). The event was a milestone in the history of political parties in Indonesia.

API has several aims in recording data on the political parties. First, it wants to show how the real progress of Indonesian politics led to an increase in the number of Indonesian political parties, although it does not always relate to the quality of the parties. Also, it shows the rise in political consciousness in society during the transition era; at the same time, the group wants to become a watchdog to monitor the behavior of political leaders today.

The other section in the book contains 10 essays by scholars centering on several issues from the transition era, such as economic growth, election methods, the rule of law and the euphoria born from media freedom. The authors are Kevin Evans, Ben Reilly, Alexander Irwan, Ignas Kleden, Agung Putri, Marsilam Simanjuntak, Julia I. Suryakusuma, Stanley, Gabriele Ferrazi and Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

It is a highly valuable effort to show that Indonesia has tried to enter a new era, not only because of the numbers of its political parties, but also through indicating the rise of hope in society for a better future. For more than 30 years, Indonesia cowered under an authoritarian regime which gave no room for opposition, a free press and rationalistic economic planning. In turn, we lived under a centralistic government and in a singularly corrupt society, which the bureaucracy was able to play economic and political roles in simultaneously.

Most Indonesians want a peaceful and constitutional political transition. They hope that the 1999 elections will be the first step to enter a new era of a more democratic society. We will have to keep track whether this desire is realized.

The country went to the polls peacefully on June 7 despite the predictions of scholars that the vote would be marred by riots. After the elections, however, the fighting began for legislative seats among the country's political elite. We see political clowns today arguing and fighting for their own benefits and interests. Have they remained consistent with their idealism as they establish their parties? This book serves as a valuable gauge in measuring their commitment.

It goes without saying the political transition in Indonesia is still in its transitional stage, which means the passage to a democratic Indonesia also hangs in the balance. Can the country eradicate the authoritarian culture which was practiced by Soeharto and Golkar for more than 30 years? What will be the conditions? Are the political parties consistent in performing fundamental changes for a democratic society, to respect human rights and social justice? Can new groups in society continue their control or, more pertinently, broaden their direction from a power which existed for more than 30 years.

These questions will linger even when the new government is established. They will be relevant in judging whether Indonesia can pass the crucial period in its history to a more rationalistic and democratic country. Will the country pass the tests to overcome its political problem, and is the new government really a representation of people's demands instead of the status quo.

The book also will become an instrument for reflection of the party leaders and also a measure of Indonesian society on whether the political elite lived up to its promises in forming parties. The advent of many new parties does not automatically translate into a more democratic society. When a new government neglects the people's demands, it tends to resort to authoritarianism and use law as a tool to protect its power. It is the first indication that we must step in and correct its errant ways.

-- Ignatius Haryanto

The reviewer is a researcher at the Institute of Press and Development Studies in Jakarta.