Fri, 26 Dec 2003

Elections really are the cheapest alternative

Kevin Evans,

Elections really are the cheapest alternative

At a recent Idul Fitri gathering a friend declared that "elections are really expensive. Is it worth it?"

I suddenly recalled the days before we could use elections to change a government. In 1998 the President of the day was dutifully re-elected by every single participating member of the National Assembly (MPR). No questions, no dissent, not even an expressions of concern.

The uncompetitive and tediously stage crafted elections from 1971 to 1997 produced a political leadership that could quarantine itself from the real world in which the rest of Indonesia lived. Outside this quarantine zone inflation was shooting towards 100%, the economy was collapsing 15%, unemployment and poverty were skyrocketing as factory, shop and other business' collapsed under 50% interest rates and no demand. Shops were running short of supplies as hoarding took place (even before the looting).

The problem was that to change leaders, people had to shake the country to its foundations, destroy the economy and threaten the social and political fabric of the nation. Even in crude money terms, the cost of the competitive 1999 elections was actually less than the loss in value of just one mid-sized company on the Jakarta stockmarket.

What an absurdly extravagant, expensive and painful way to change a government! The costs of changing the government back in the mid-1960s was arguably even more expensive, certainly in terms of the loss of life.

Frankly an election that used gold plated ballot papers would still be far cheaper than the costs of having to destroy the economy and leave untold numbers of citizens dead and traumatised if all that was desired was to change the government

As a result I think it fair to say that competitive, (free and fair), elections is a far cheaper way to say to a leader or other politicians "it's time to enjoy your retirement" than to resort to other options this country has been forced to use far too frequently throughout history.

One question often asked cynically, particularly from the urban intellectuals, is "will these elections produce change?" Setting aside the issue of instant gratification, that is take elections mix in free press, then presto instant just and prosperous democracy, this question can only be answered by considering a few other questions.

The most basic question to be considered is whether 140 million voters want change or not? For example will the voters be happy to take their Rp 50,000 (or whatever the going rate next year will be) before polls open and vote for the party that provided such "generosity"? How many voters recognise that elections are not festivals of democracy and that the impact of who they vote for can have a 5 year impact on their lives? Additionally will people who have been thrown out of their make shift houses as part of the Governor's cleansing of Jakarta vote for the parties that re-elected this Governor? Will the coffee shop radicals who enjoy deriding the existing and potential leaders and political parties offer themselves for public office?

Unfortunately democracy is not such an easy option. It is also not the "soft option" that the militarist mind-set would have you believe. Democracy is the hard option for citizens because it makes you responsible. It is not only leaders who are responsible and accountable. As a voter you are responsible directly for who is or is not elected. It is simply not good enough to prattle on about "primordialism", poverty or low levels of education etc in order to evade responsibility and justify results.

One way to evade from responsibility is to boycott the vote. The Golput (vote boycott) phenomena made great sense in an era when politics was restricted and government controlled. Indeed it was a powerful form of subversion. However in this era it is merely self-defeating. Yes voters have the right not to vote. But the catch is you can't actually opt out. This is because not voting is also a vote. In not voting, your "vote" will actually strengthen the party or candidate you most dislike.

It is very simple. There are two candidates. You don't like either. Of course there is one you dislike slightly more than the other. By not voting you actually provide support to the other, as you would have voted for the first one had you voted.

Just ask the French Socialists. In the last elections they decided to stay at home for the first round of the Presidential Election. The candidate to benefit from this was the extreme right winger, who came in second and was able to participate in the final round. The ultimate beneficiary was the moderate right winger as the Socialists were forced to vote for him to stop the extreme right winger from being elected.

The bottom line of democracy is that you can't escape responsibility, unless of course you escape democracy. Oh yes the good ol' days, when the Great Leader made all the decisions and we simply kept our mouth's shut. The good ol' days of predictable tranquility when a thick blanket of political censorship covered the ocean of Indonesia -- blissful and noble ignorance. The good ol' days when we knew the system was corrupt and that the official government structures bore scant resemblance to the real structures of power. In seeking refuge in nostalgia do recall that it took at least 10 years to establish the good ol' days system and even then it was only 2 oil booms that lubricated the way for the system to survive as long as it did.

In this regard the emergence of Indonesia's own version of SARS (Sindrom Aku Rindu Soeharto -- the I Miss Soeharto Syndrome) is a call to go Back to the Future. Sadly this is only possible in movies. Even were the great Soeharto back as President would the New Order be back overseeing 7% growth a year, investment flooding in and freedom from freedom back in vogue? Of course not. Immunity to SARS begins with accepting that the future of the country is in your hands, not some messianic Great Leader.

The answer to the question of whether the elections will produce change is "does the electorate want change?" If they don't then the elections will not, and should not, produce change. After all free and fair elections reflect the will of the electorate. Alternatively if they do vote for change, then yes the elections may well produce change.