Wed, 08 Jan 2003

Megawati and 'wong cilik'

Is anyone up there in the government still defending and fighting for the wong cilik, the Javanese words Indonesian politicians fondly used to refer to the little people?

President Megawati Soekarnoputri, and her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), are fast shedding the image and reputation of the leader and the party for wong cilik which they have carved for themselves to give them victory at the 1999 general elections.

The government's decision to hike the prices of utilities at the start of the year may have been an inevitable economic necessity. But because it came so close to President Megawati's decision to waive criminal charges against big time corruptors, she is sending the wrong message about her own commitment to help the lot of the wong cilik, her party's main constituents.

The massive price hikes clearly meant additional economic burden for everyone, and most of all, for the working class.

But the decision to free heavily indebted conglomerates, who brought the nation to the present state of near bankruptcy, of criminal charges means that the burden of economic crisis is not being shared equally by society. Far from it.

These conglomerates have left in their trail massive unpaid debts that the government have had to assume. And it will take at least an entire generation of taxpayers to pay them off.

The way they incurred these debts, through corruption, collusion and nepotism, is legendary. They literally robbed the nation. Yet, the government has now decided that the corporate assets which the conglomerates had surrendered would be good enough to cover their entire debts, although in many cases they barely amount to a fifth of the value of what they owe.

Hence, Megawati on Thursday signed away a presidential instruction to release the conglomerates of their obligations, and to discharge them of criminal liability arising from these debt problems. Thanks to her personal decisions, these conglomerates are about to walk free, after causing untold misery on the rest of the nation.

How is this release and discharge policy related to the policy to increase the prices of utilities, besides their closed timing?

The two are related in the way that the burden of the economic crisis are being apportioned. And let's never forget, the present economic crisis, and the reason why utility prices were hiked at New Year's, was largely caused by the thieving conglomerates.

The hikes in the prices of electricity, fuel and telephone are burdensome but they would have been palatable because there are valid economic rationales for their increases. Besides, these were periodic increases that had been largely accepted before.

What makes this month's hikes different is that it comes at a time when the people's sense of justice and fairness has been hurt by a series of controversial decisions, the most important of which is the release and discharge policy. The thieves walk free while the rest of the nation is made to pick up the tab.

The government is increasingly earning the reputation as being pro-business for the wrong reason, for it is helping out the kind of business conglomerates that have a criminal track record.

We may recall that this is not the first instance that the Megawati administration has betrayed the very constituents that had helped her party won the 1999 election.

Last year, she personally intervened in the Jakarta gubernatorial election to ensure the reelection of the incumbent Sutiyoso, even as he still faces criminal charges for the brutal attack against Megawati's supporters in Jakarta in 1996.

The small folks today have every right to feel that they have been abandoned or even betrayed by their party. Megawati and her PDI Perjuangan are fast losing the support of the people, especially of their own constituents, the wong cilik.

The government may stand on a solid constitutional ground until the 2004 election in spite of the massive price hikes, but its popular legitimacy is fast ebbing. She must heed the lesson from the last year of Soeharto's presidency, and from the brief terms of B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid, that without popular legitimacy, you simply cannot govern effectively.