Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Democracy Indian-style: What lessons are there for Indonesia?

Jemma Purdey, Mumbai, India

In the world's largest democracy corruption, vote buying and violence are constant themes. Could this be true democracy in action? What lessons are there for Indonesia?

In May, India completed a mammoth month-long round of elections across this vast country. A further week of lobbying and deal making finally saw the Congress-plus-allies coalition take shape but only after the high drama of Sonia Gandhi forgoing the position of prime minister in favor of respected economist and former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.

Democracy India-style is different in many ways to that seen in the U.S, Australia or France. Is it an "Asian" model that Indonesia could learn from?

India is fiercely proud of its democracy and there is no doubt that organizing elections for a potential constituency of 670 million voters is an incredible undertaking. Indonesia could learn much from the speed and transparency with which votes are tallied and the extensive powers accorded to the Electoral Commission (EC).

But this is also a nation with only 65 percent literacy, which falls to below 50 percent in some states. Can it be said that the masses of people, particularly in rural areas, are able to make an informed choice at the polling booth? Is this still democracy in action? There are disturbing trends in Indian politics that Indonesia, as a still fledgling democracy, could learn to avoid. The only worry is that it may already be too late.

During the election campaign and as voting got underway in staggered stages throughout India, the election was rightly heralded as a great "dance of democracy", with free and fair processes observed in most places. But there was also violence and intimidation of voters in different parts of the country.

On paper it could be argued that comparatively Indonesia has a much better chance of making democracy work. It has only one- fifth of India's 1.03 billion population, its literacy rate is 87 percent and on all the indicators including Gross National Income, life expectancy and infant morality rates Indonesia ranks higher. At the same time Indonesia is also ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

India and Indonesia are both nations of ethnic and religious plurality with one dominant religion (Hinduism and Islam respectively) yet both have consistently chosen a secular political ideology. At the same time they have both experienced frequent violent conflicts based on religious, ethnic and political antagonisms. Both countries have or are also currently fighting separatist insurgencies on their perimeters.

Ironically, since the fall of the autocratic and oppressive New Order government criminality and recourse to violence in Indonesia between citizens in local communities and among individuals has risen. Conflict between Christians and Muslims in Ambon and parts of Sulawesi prompts immediate comparisons with communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India.

However, so far the same levels of "normalization" of this violence, which appear to exist in India today, have not yet been reached in Indonesia and must be avoided by enforcing laws and opposing impunity for the perpetrators of violence.

Moreover, a key point of difference is the institutionalization of violence and criminality within the Indonesian armed forces, in particular the military. This institution is responsible for many human rights atrocities committed across the archipelago in the recent past and until now, save for the prosecution of some low level figures, has not been made accountable.

In political terms, the power of the military in Indonesia has been declining, however the potential election of former military General Wiranto threatens to reverse this trend.

Another message sent clearly by India's recent election, was that its middle classes have no real voting clout compared to the vast numbers of rural and urban poor. The defeat of the BJP and its "India Shining" campaign in this election was a clear sign that a campaign geared towards the middle class is a fruitless one.

The defeat was a shock for many commentators, for it occurred in spite of India's economy growing at 8 percent over the past few years and improved relations with Pakistan. The BJP was confident of its good record on these issues and its promise to continue with them, but in what commentators are claiming to be a backlash from the rural and urban poor, they lost out to Congress and other small parties.

The widening gap between rich and poor in India and Indonesia means that a role for the educated middle class in politics and civil society in general, is essential in order to bridge the gap between elitist and fundamentalist politics on the one hand, and "mass voting" on the other.

In comparing these democratic systems, the political role of the Indonesian middle classes who until now have been heavily engaged in the democratic process, marks an important point of difference.

Whilst it may be wracked by corruption and dirty politics, India's democracy does however possess a solid tradition and grounding in the rule of law. Victories for the common man through the courts, although not as frequent as human rights and anti-corruption campaigners would like, do happen. Yet, India's rule of law, however flawed it may be, manages small and large victories, which remain extremely rare in Indonesia where judicial corruption is prevalent.

As Asian democracies, both with large and plural populations, India and Indonesia have much in common. With a history of democracy for over fifty years India's experiences rightly hold important lessons for Indonesia. But the lessons are not all born from positive experiences.

Indonesia would do well to look to the extent to which violence between individuals and communities is regarded as normal in India, and therefore the impunity with which it is widely carried out.

With corrupt and fundamentalist politicians in power for whom these are also political tools, it is that other institution of democracy, the judiciary, which is India's saving grace.

Indonesia's judiciary is only beginning to mature and the rule of law is not yet in place. If corruption and violence are "a part of democracy" in these nations, then it is clear that strengthening this institution could be Indonesia's only hope.

The author ( is a freelance writer.