Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Democracy, power brokers in mike-happy MPR

JAKARTA (JP): When the newly sworn in members of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) held a plenary session on Oct. 2 to vote for changes to its internal rules, I was watching from the Assembly hall's balcony with excitement.

This was a moment I had longed to witness. An actual democratic process was happening in this "People's building".

It had a similar novel feeling, like when I got to write "the former president Soeharto" for the first time last year after having grown up under the impression that there would only be one Indonesian president in my lifetime.

The new MPR members were brave. They were outspoken, they were critical, they were skeptical, they were ... well, obnoxious.

It was amusing initially. But as the night edged toward morning, and as petty debates and childish remarks got in the way of accomplishing the main task -- and editors back at the office were getting restless over meeting deadlines -- my amusement gradually turned into annoyance.

Below me, a sea of over 600 adults bringing various agenda, led by two inexperienced acting speakers, could not even agree on one thing: how to vote. In the balcony, fellow journalists -- the remaining few mostly from TV, afternoon papers, magazines and wire services -- seemed to share the same frustrations.

We sighed each time the microphone-happy MPR members tried to outpace each other to seize another opportunity of "interruption". We griped at the speakers' indecisiveness and inability to maintain order and were irate at members who used their speaking privilege so liberally to voice irrelevant views.

We must have secretly wished we could gavel the MPR members to silence, or join the flood of interruptions to tell them to stop talking and start listening.

This, of course, is a sign of democracy. I understand that in some countries it gets even worse. Verbal battles are not enough as parliament members often engage in physical aggression.

But then I remembered that just a day before, the unpopular President B.J. Habibie was booed by these very people as the ever-smiling, unsuspecting President strode down the aisle to attend their inauguration. One only has to go to the nearest high school to feel what it's like to be among the rowdy members that day.

Later, when the Assembly voted for the House of Representatives (DPR) speaker on early Wednesday morning, two people cast votes for presidential hopeful Megawati Soekarnoputri and the Crescent Star Party chairman, Yusril Ihza Mahendra -- neither of whom belonged to the race.

While this might capture the attention of the lethargic House members at 2:30 a.m., it was an insult to the institution and the people it represented. Either the two voters were fanatics or they simply mistook the supreme legislative body as a game venue.

Our new MPR members are no doubt capable of channeling the aspirations of their constituents and their parties. But their poor show of manner and refusal to bow to order made them susceptible to mockery, instead of earning them fresh respect from the people watching them live from their living room. They gave a whole new meaning to the request: "interruption, plenary chief".

But still, I would not have had it any other way.

Though the General Session at times dragged on painfully, progress was made -- and every time that happened my skepticism gave way to my impressionable, giddy self.

That chaotic first election, a mechanism nonexistent in Soeharto's MPR, turned out to be just a bad case of unpreparedness. The next day the Assembly members were on their best manners when they lined up to vote for their chairman.

Credit should also go out to a handful of seasoned politicians, the masters of the art of lobbying, who were in on endless backroom deals, exchanging favors and securing concessions, while fellow MPR members spent their free time watching HBO in hotel rooms or frequenting karaoke bars.

These power brokers are the ones who, in a way, manipulate our simple concept of democracy and turn it into a complex, entangled and unpredictable political web. They are also the ones responsible for helping turn rival party leaders to literally share powers.

I actually took pleasure in watching the politicians toil for hours in meetings, coaxing or bluffing rival partisans for a compromise -- their bloodshot eyes showing sleep deprivation and their faces paling as vote results were counted -- before finally securing their desired results.

After this exhilarating experience, I doubt that any Indonesian would ever want to see a president handpick MPR leaders as was the past practice.

From now on, it should always be the other way around.

-- Devi M. Asmarani