Mon, 14 Apr 2003


Politics can't be justified without concern for public good

Political parties and political issues in Indonesia

Ignas Kleden The Center for East Indonesian Affairs (CEIA) Jakarta

It is an age-old truism that politics has something to do with power. Yet this only half the truth. The fact that someone -- the president for example -- is entitled to such big power over the others can only be understood and justified if the power given to him or her is used for the common good of as many citizens as possible.

This is why the concern for the common good and public interest is another constitutive element of politics. Without power entitlement and power wielding, politics cannot be exercised. And without serious concern for public interest and common good, politics cannot be justified.

The situation is somewhat parallel to the fact that the state is entitled to have the monopoly of the use of violence. This entitlement is accepted because it is believed that the violence which is at the state's disposal will be used to compel law enforcement by means of forcing people who refuse to behave according to the law to recognize and to follow legal rules and regulations. Also it is assumed that the violence will be used to protect the state and the citizens from possible violence conducted by other party or other state.

Yet the entitlement is often hunted for without sufficient awareness of the concomitant obligation. Power is so enchanting and overwhelming, while the concern for public interest and common good is usually neglected and ignored. This is also true for the army and the police who are often more than aware of their right to apply violence and to use weapons while being easily forgetful of the obligation to protect people and to provide them with security.

This asymmetric perception of politics is all the more true for Indonesia. Their agenda and operation shows that their main business and their most important preoccupation is nothing but the involvement in the attainment, the distribution and the maximization of power. All political parties, big and small, are engaged in preparation for general election, electoral threshold, the financing of political campaign, possible political coalition, and the prospective candidates for the presidency and the House of Representatives.

No mention is made of how a political party envisages the realization of the common good and the public interest and how this will be done. The Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), Golkar, and United Development (PPP) say very little or not even a single word about their determination, strategy and method to fight the proliferation of corruption and other malpractices within bureaucracy, what is to be done to solve the problem of increasing unemployment, and what are their ideas and plans regarding economic recovery.

It is really surprising that despite the very striking and threatening environmental depreciation, there is no imagination among the politically interested people to found a political party comparable to the Green Party in other more developed countries.

Surprisingly though there are a great number of people living below the poverty line -- reaching 47.9 million according to the 2002 report of the Ministry of Health -- and despite so many minorities there is no serious initiative to establish a political party which concentrates on social-democratic programs.

Yet every political party repeatedly talks about the interest and the progress of the people, without the smallest hint of the willingness and the ability to translate distinctively people's interest into priorities in various sectors.

How is people's interest reflected and represented in housing, public transportation, schooling, industry, trade, business and economy or political education? Is it in the interest of the people if private luxury cars dominate the city's main streets instead of public transportations? How is public interest made visible in education if fees are so high that education is affordable only within a limited circle?

Why are golf courses everywhere while there is hardly space for playgrounds? Are small industries and various handcrafts are given priorities and incentives? Why do industrial goods have free prices whereas agricultural products are bound to have a fixed price?

For now there are more than 200 political parties in Indonesia -- which does not necessarily imply that there are more than 200 or more groupings interested in the common good. The figure only indicates an increasing number of people participating in power building and power wielding. It's rare to hear substantial debates among political parties about their plans and programs for poverty alleviation, about priorities in regional autonomy or about improvement and reform of national education.

In more developed democratic countries the competition among contending political parties is carried out through the introduction and the promotion of their political programs. People vote for parties with political programs that are supposed to correspond best to the needs of the voters.

In Indonesia it is a sociological enigma, on why and on the basis of what reasons people vote to one party instead of the other, despite the fact the political programs are not the main priority of most of the parties. What becomes the means of political persuasion and political appeal?

The absence of substantial programs of political parties become one of the main reasons why the tendency towards internal fractioning within parties is far greater than the ability to establish an internal consolidation. What is now happening within Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) occurs also within the National Awakening Party (PKB), PPP and within the former ruling party, Golkar.

The lack of concern about public interest as a common cause for every party members turns out to become an occasion in which everybody who have some influence within party is tempted to make use of the party as a means for the pursuit of individual interest or the interest of a particular faction.

It can certainly be fruitful if the contending arguments and the contest of competing discourses are pursued within the scope of a party's mission and within the framework of party's programs. But often each faction within the party endeavours to pursue its own interest instead of getting involved in efforts to find the best possible way to realize the program of the party.

This is why political parties here do not as yet represent a case of institution building in political sector. There are no common programs and ideals which function as a cohesive binding force uniting the party members as a solid grouping, and there are no common values for which the party becomes an institutional embodiment. The programs and the ideals make the commitment of party members and the devotion of their expertise meaningful, whereas the underlying common values provide them with a sense of purpose and sense of fulfilment.

The official number of the registered political parties of Indonesia now is 234, of which 30 are supposedly entitled to contend in the competition for general election. We have to wait and see whether the smaller parties which do not pass the electoral threshold are willing and ready to sacrifice their own interest in order to encourage political institution building in Indonesia by means of joining the bigger ones.

Yet this is very unlikely because the absence of substantial programs in many bigger parties would make it very difficult for the smaller ones to estimate their closeness to one party or another. The tragedy is that people are inclined to believe that pursuing one's own interest is more safe and long-lasting than trying to push for the common good in which one can happily partake without excluding other people unnecessarily.

At this point a miserable tragedy is turned into a bad comedy.