Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Giving people more choice

It remains anyone's guess as to how far Nurcholish Madjid will go in his bid for the presidency, but his decision to plunge into the electoral foray is a welcome infusion into an election that had hitherto promised to be dull. Cak Nur, as the Islamic intellectual is popularly called, is challenging the tight grip of political parties over the election process.

If he plays his cards right, he could upset all predictions. At the very least, he could offer voters a credible alternative -- an essential element in democracy -- to the current set of leaders who dominate the political scene.

Until his announcement of his bid for the presidency, the 2004 presidential election was looking more like a game of musical chairs for the same existing players. We could not really expect meaningful change if we were to return these same leaders to power. Their track record in pushing for reform, the very reason they were elected back in 1999, has fallen short of expectations.

The big political parties that control the House of Representatives have designed electoral laws that favor incumbents over new and smaller players. If these parties had their way, the electorate would be left with few real alternatives from which to choose in 2004, even under a system in which they voted for the president directly.

Cak Nur is not alone in trying to break this domination.

Several other, well-meaning prominent public figures are taking the long and difficult road by forming their own political parties. Cak Nur, who is not affiliated to any political party, has tried to circumvent that process by seeking the nomination of Golkar, the country's second-largest political party.

Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows. The association between Cak Nur and Golkar, if it materializes, would be one example.

Golkar still carries the political baggage of a machine that kept the tyrant Soeharto in power for more than 32 years. Such is Golkar's dark past that it will probably continue to prevent it ever from reclaiming the prominence it once enjoyed, winning 70 percent to 80 percent of the vote during Soeharto's years.

Cak Nur, on the other hand, is a reputed and respected Islamic thinker, one of the few public figures in Indonesia that command moral stature. He is popular, not only with predominantly Muslim Indonesians, but also with non-Muslims, because of his views regarding a moderate, tolerant (and apolitical) version of Islam.

If Golkar were to choose Cak Nur as its presidential candidate, this would likely be a marriage of convenience, but one from which both sides would benefit.

Given his stature and popular appeal, Cak Nur's presence in Golkar could help it regain votes in the April general election and emerge as one of the top winners (some even suggesting that Golkar might pip President Megawati Soekarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, for the top slot).

Golkar, for its part, could use its political machinery and national network, still one of the best and certainly the largest in the country, to mobilize support in the presidential election.

But Cak Nur has to overcome many formidable obstacles to clinch Golkar's presidential nomination.

Unlike the other major political parties, Golkar does not have a credible presidential candidate. It could hardly expect to nominate its chairman, current House Speaker Akbar Tandjung, a convicted corruptor, without risking its own electoral chances. It knows this and that is why it has opened its nomination to the public, via a national convention.

Several names have been mentioned as possible candidates, from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Wiranto, Prabowo Subianto, Surya Paloh, and Jusuf Kalla, but none has the popular appeal, credibility or moral stature that Cak Nur commands. Golkar would be stupid not to take up his offer to become its candidate.

But Cak Nur would also be naive if he thought that Golkar's nomination would automatically be his. Having announced that he was making himself available to Golkar on Monday, much of the work will have to come from him and his foot soldiers to ensure that he clinches the nomination.

The coming weeks and months will be crucial for the nation as the battle intensifies among the presidential hopefuls to vie for the nomination of one of the country's largest political parties. The upcoming Golkar national convention will determine whether Cak Nur has what it takes to become a politician and statesman. If he lacks the fighting spirit and the political skils, then he does not deserve to become president in the first place.

But whether or not he makes it past the Golkar convention, Cak Nur's arrival on the national political scene has revived people's interest in the 2004 general election.

The election next year is about people making their choice of whom should lead the nation. Our task is to ensure that there are real alternatives from which people may choose. Cak Nur, even with Golkar behind him, could be a candidate who offers genuine, credible alternatives that are essential to a functioning democracy.

Whether or not he is the right choice is for the people to decide.