Thu, 11 May 2000

Democracy demands political maturity

By Cornelis Lay

This is the second of two articles based on a paper presented at a conference on Europe, East Timor and Indonesia in Bogor on May 2, 2000.

BOGOR: Experience from the past tells us that government instability was among the principle reasons why democracy foundered in Indonesia, namely because it provided an excuse for non-democratic powers to intervene in the political process and take the reins.

It is time for the elite of the country to realize that their immaturity in running politics has a negative impact on the development of democracy, and the improvement of the economy.

Democracy demands political maturity, and the responsibility of the elite as well as the masses. These are things that the country is currently in short supply of.

The second challenge to a democratic transition is the military (TNI). The military -- or more precisely, the army -- has always been the Achilles heel of Indonesian democracy. Historical developments demonstrate that strong military intervention in almost every aspect of life in Indonesia has put both democracy and human rights in jeopardy.

In the last two years, the military has been under persistent attacks for it to retreat from politics. While within the military itself, there has been a lot of talk of TNI redefining its social and political roles.

The latest development from the TNI camp suggests that the military is going to leave the political stage. A new generation within the military now realizes that most of the criticism is due to the military's involvement in politics.

Withdrawing from politics is the only solution for TNI some believe, especially if it wants to restore its credibility.

However, this is not the final solution since there are signs of resistance coming from the military. Moreover, this is still an idea and is far from being materialized.

The retreat of TNI from politics is merely talk at this point. It is not yet a reality. The structure of the military as well as its doctrine remains the same. It still has a long way to go.

In dealing with the military, Gus Dur's government is trying to put it under civilian control. For those who believe in civilian supremacy as a guiding principle of democracy, Gus Dur's policy toward TNI is a promising sign.

However, there is strong indication that civilian supremacy over TNI has yet to happen. We only have "Gus Dur supremacy" over the military, but not civilian supremacy. This can lead us in two opposing directions.

First, as time goes by, the principle of civilian supremacy can be fulfilled. Second, it can lead to a dangerous situation in which the withdrawing of the military simply means the shifting of loyalty from one center of power to another. In this case, Gus Dur as a president becomes the new patron of the military in place of Soeharto.

Therefore, the basic problem of the military being misused as a political instrument of the power holder remains unresolved.

There is reason to believe that the removal of some high- ranking military officials from top positions is not only dictated by a willingness to have a professional military institution in the future, but also by the willingness to have loyal military personnel, too.

This last tendency is being stimulated by the latest political developments in the country. The magnitude of what can be called "mutual distrust" among the political elite in Jakarta has reached the point where every single political faction, including Gus Dur, needs to consolidate support from as many social groups in the country as possible.

"The threat" Gus Dur is facing now, could encourage him to believe that he needs help from the military in order to deal with other political factions. Once again, Indonesia's experiences in the past tell us that this kind of situation is very conducive to non-democratic power taking root in Indonesian politics.

The third challenge for democratic transition is related to the problem of the nation's survival. National integration is now a very serious issue for the archipelago.

The rise of "ethno-nationalism", as reflected in the demands of local areas for either local autonomy or independence, has reached a critical point.

If the situation continues to worsen, it will eventually reach a stage in which the central government has no other option but to choose between national integration and democracy.

Evidence from many parts of the world suggests that a national government tends to prefer the first choice at the expense of the latter since the nation's survival is its first and foremost concern.

For the time being, the idea of decentralization as a means of facilitating national integration seems to be the dominant policy.

The government is undertaking a series of policies and efforts to fulfill local demands for more political and economic power.

First, this is very clear based on the establishment of the State Minister of Local Autonomy within the cabinet. The last cabinet that had this kind of ministerial position was Burhanuddin Harahap's cabinet in the 1950s.

The creation of the ministry is a sign that decentralization and national integration have been seen as two faces of the same coin.

It assumes that decentralization will support national integration and vice versa. Second, the government is now working on a number of policies that will create local autonomy, and that will also include a new formula for the improvement of central- regional financial relationships.

Third, the new laws on local government and central regional financial relations (Laws number 22 and 25 of 1999) has provided the basis for a new political arrangement at the local level to take place.

According to the new laws, the old political arrangement, marked by a centralized and monolithic political structure, has to be replaced with a new arrangement that can guarantee the dissemination of power. If the strong constitutional positions of local areas can be materialized, then part of the regional question Indonesia is facing can be answered.

But whether or not the compatibility between democracy and decentralization can sustain itself highly depends on the dynamics of local politics in the country.

The fourth challenge is related to the problem of social integration that the country is suffering through at the moment. Widespread conflicts in many parts of the nation spell out the basic problems of social integration.

The institutionalized conflicts, for instance, clearly demonstrate the absence of both civil society and democratic culture within Indonesian society.

The results are clear. Society falls into the trap of being "a self-crippling entity".

As far as I understand, many analysts focus their analysis on the "state" being obstacle to democracy. "Society", on the other hand, is understood o be just the opposite.

There is no doubt that the "state" was and still is the main problem for democracy. However, evidence from many regions also confirm that society is the principle obstacle for the emergence of democracy.

So it is important for us to have a closer look at civil society both as a solution and as a problem for democracy. Unless a strong civil society emerges and the notion of "civility" is accepted as a fundamental principle in guiding social, economic and political relations in society, democratic transition will remain a mere novelty for Indonesia.

Our discussion so far suggests that democratic transition in the country is still an uphill battle. There are some conditions favorable for democracy, but still there are many things that have to be done before Indonesia can enjoy the privilege of being a democratic country.

There is no doubt that the ability of the nation to endure the transitional period toward democracy will contribute to the development of democracy in the region as a whole.

As the most diverse country in the region, the ability to manage its diversity in a democratic manner will provide a model not only for the region but also for many countries in the world.

And, as a country with a very long history of authoritarianism and military intervention in politics, its ability to cope with its problems will inspire neighboring countries in the region to move in the same direction.

The people of Myanmar, for example, could draw a lesson from Indonesia.

Cornelis Lay Ph.D is a senior lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences, Gadjah Mada University and executive director of the Center for Local Politics and Development Studies, Yogyakarta.