Wed, 24 Dec 2003

Party interests stifle bill debates

Kurniawan Hari The Jakarta Post Jakarta

Despite their pledge to fight for the aspirations of the public at large, legislators in the House of Representatives continue to display a willingness to betray their constituents in order to further their own interests.

During a commission meeting to discuss the presidential election bill in May, for example, Ahmad Hafiz Zawawi from Golkar insisted that presidential candidates must possess strong intellectual capabilities measured through educational diplomas.

"If the candidates only have high school education diplomas, they should be disqualified," Ahmad said.

Although he did not mention any names, it was easy to guess that the Golkar legislator was trying to erect a legal barrier for incumbent President Megawati Soekarnoputri, who holds a high school diploma only.

Surveys and polls conducted so far all say that Megawati, despite her falling popularity and lackluster performance, remains the strongest presidential candidate for the 2004 election, ahead of Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung.

It was not at all surprising, therefore, that Ahmad's suggestion drew strong objections from legislators from Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), who argued that a university diploma was not everything.

"We all know that university diplomas have become a commodity. It will be better if we demand morality and intellectuality rather than certificates," PDI-P legislator J.E. Sahetapi said.

Some PDI-P legislators retaliated by insisting that anyone convicted of any crime cannot run for president.

Akbar, who is also Speaker of the House of Representatives (DPR), has been sentenced to three years in jail for his role in a Rp 40 billion financial scandal involving the State Logistics Agency (Bulog). He remains free pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.

As for small parties, their main concern was how they could field presidential candidates without necessarily fulfilling the requirement on minimum votes gained in the legislative election.

The original draft of the bill stated that only political parties or coalitions of parties with at least 20 percent of the vote (or 15 percent of the seats in the House) would be allowed to nominate presidential candidates.

It was easy, therefore, to predict the outcome of the deliberation. When the House endorsed the final draft, which later became the presidential election law, the bill allowed high school graduates and convicted criminals with jail sentences less than five years to run for the country's highest post.

Small parties also got what they wanted. The new law stipulates that parties that garner at least 3 percent of the vote in the legislative election may nominate a presidential candidate. For parties that do not meet the electoral threshold, they could form a coalition that accounts for at least 5 percent of the total vote in order to field a candidate.

In the end, Megawati, who did not finish her university studies, and Akbar, who was sentenced to a three-year jail term, may contest Indonesia's first ever direct presidential election in 2004.

Megawati, with her PDI-P, and Akbar, with his Golkar, were clearly the winners of the bill deliberation, while the people, who had hoped the bill would lay the foundations for the birth of strong and clean national leaders, were left out in the cold.

Concerning campaign funds, factions in the House also agreed not to limit the maximum amount of campaign funds of presidential candidates, making it impossible for auditors to monitor the spending of each candidates.

According to political analyst J. Kristiadi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), crucial laws are often built on negotiations among political parties. As such, the laws cater to the needs and interests of political parties and the elite, not the people at large.

Big parties like PDI-P, the United Development Party (PPP), the National Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and Golkar play pivotal roles in the negotiations.

The fact that some groups in society have already demanded the Constitutional Court review some laws shortly after they were endorsed proves that the House and the government fail to accommodate the aspirations of the vast majority.

The Indonesian Television Journalists Association (IJTI), for example, has requested the Constitutional Court review the broadcasting law, which was endorsed at the end of 2002.

The move was taken after the House insisted on endorsing the bill despite rejection from elements in society. Up until now, President Megawati has not enacted the bill. Nevertheless, the bill automatically became a law 30 days after it was endorsed.

The newly established Constitutional Court is now in the process of reviewing at least 32 laws, which the people consider to have flaws and do not accommodate the people's interests.

Currently under review are, among others, laws on regional autonomy, elections, commission for corruption eradication, electricity and manpower.

A survey conducted recently by the Center for the Study of Development and Democracy (CESDA) shows that most respondents did not trust politicians. They are of the opinion that the politicians often put their own interests above those of their constituents.

The comprehensive survey also revealed that most respondents were disappointed with the performance of the House.

CESDA senior researcher Imam Ahmad said the survey was further proof the House was not performing.

The survey also revealed that the public think lawmakers had failed to address strategic problems faced by the people such as cheap education, health service, food supply and unemployment and had given little attention to cases of corruption and human rights abuses.

People's perception of the House

-------------------------------------------------------------- No. Perception Percentage of respondents -------------------------------------------------------------- 1. House fights for people's interest 13 percent 2. House prioritizes political interest 50 percent 3. Lawmakers fight for personal interest 33 percent 4. No opinion 4 percent -------------------------------------------------------------- Source: CESDA