Wed, 24 Mar 1999

Criminalization of politics is a lethal cocktail

By Sidhesh Kaul

JAKARTA (JP): As Indonesia prepares for the upcoming June general election, there is the growing danger of criminal elements creeping into the political arena. The combination of corruption and criminalization in politics is a deadly cocktail which, over a period of time, could pose a serious threat to Indonesian democracy.

This unholy nexus in Indonesian politics has its roots in economic circumstances, and unemployment, illiteracy, poverty and hunger will fuel its unhealthy growth. The heady ideological enthusiasm displayed by students during the stormy days of May 1998 is being replaced by the cool calculations of political pundits. This coming election is vital because it will determine Indonesia's economic path as well as the fate of its fledgling efforts at democracy.

What does "criminalization of politics" mean? In general terms, it means the use of economic power or physical power by politicians, particularly during elections. It could also take the form of politicians aiding and abetting criminals (and may also include interference with law enforcement agencies).

Another aspect of this problem is the politicization of the administration, particularly the police, with the latter obliging ruling politicians by permitting interference in their efforts at law enforcement.

There is also the danger of criminals taking refuge under the umbrella of politics as a means of legitimizing their existence (in other words the "politicization of criminals"). These are all different facets of this many headed devil and the sooner Indonesians become aware of this latent danger the better the chances democracy will survive, even under the most trying of circumstances.

Indonesia is ripe for this nexus to bloom in its political system. The phoenix of democratic aspirations is rising out of the ashes of years of collusion between "big money", the powers that be and the Army.

This collusive equation was defined several decades ago and has put down deep roots in Indonesian soil. Old habits die hard and it is unlikely the equation will change overnight.

Today, even as the embers of reformasi (reformation) glow, there are instances of blatant favoritism parading in the garb of "transparency".

Intellectuals and ideologues, although aware of this malaise, need to see such practices in the bigger context and not use them to narrow electoral ambitions or to settle old scores. This is an opportune time to build a foundation upon which Indonesia can build a system of clean governance.

Most Indonesians live in rural areas without basic necessities and are completely ignorant of their rights. It is these rural Indonesians who will become cannon fodder if Indonesia does not establish a system of clean governance. Who will hear their pleas? What steps are being taken to ensure their interests are not ignored this time around?

Many people refuse to believe Indonesia's power nexus can be broken and that a fair and free system, be it electoral or otherwise, can prevail. With cynicism comes a crisis of confidence. Tools of governance (executive, military or judiciary) cannot function effectively in an underlying climate of nonconfidence.

So where does the solution lie? Definitely not in any new, explosive, revolutionary style upheaval. Empowering the people is the key to building a new, clean system of governance. This can be achieved by strengthening the judiciary and arming it with the weapons it needs to rightfully claim the title "protector of the people". Power must come from the people and a good system would, over time, provide the checks and balances to allow this to take place. More importantly, the judiciary must be independent and free from influence.

Political ideologues and intellectuals need to adopt "clean governance" as a platform and a commitment to the masses. None of the political parties contesting the upcoming general election are talking about how "clean and upright" they are or what programs they will introduce to provide clean and fair governance -- instead they are crying themselves hoarse about "three decades of political and economic tyranny".

Needless to say, it is easier to politicize "wrongs". Why else do we see so many political manifestos which simply promise not to repeat the mistakes of the past without explaining how they will provide a better future.

The writer is an observer of economics and political affairs based in Jakarta.