Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Politicians vs statesmen

Whatever people say about the Annual Session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) which ends today, there is one very important lesson the nation has learned from this arduous and complex political process: Indonesia has an ominous shortage of leaders with statesmanlike qualities.

For all the democratic and transparent processes the nation went through last year in electing its present leaders, it has failed to produce a leader who can even remotely be considered a statesman or stateswoman. Watching our elected politicians deliberate matters of importance to the nation these last 12 days has only reaffirmed this belief.

Not a single politician, whether in the legislative or executive branch, has risen to the stature of a "statesman" as the word is defined in Merriem Webster's Dictionary: "One who exercises political leadership wisely and without narrow partisanship."

The general election last year, the country's first democratic polls in over 40 years, produced a new breed of politicians who are now serving in both the executive and legislative branches of government. Some of them possess the skills of astute politicians, and others have mastered the art of the political game. But that is as far as they go. They are all just politicians, not statesmen or stateswomen.

What distinguishes a statesman from a politician? Georges Pompidou probably gave the best explanation, certainly in the context of Indonesian politics today. The one-time French president stated: "A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service."

Throughout the Assembly session, we witnessed time and again how virtually every politician fought to serve their own personal ambitions or their party's interests. None managed to subordinate their personal or party interests to the interests of the nation. Even President Abdurrahman Wahid, as visionary a leader Indonesia can expect, succumbed to the lowly political games as he fended off scathing criticism from the Assembly.

Factionalism, sectarianism and regionalism, as well as political self-interest, were glaringly and unabashedly visible at almost every instance of the political process in the Assembly. They were present in the progress reports by various state institutions, in the general views about the progress reports and in the ensuing recommendations.

They were clearly present in the deliberations of the various new MPR decrees and, sadly, in the debate of amendments to the 1945 Constitution. It is only safe to assume that self-interest also played a major role in backroom dealings as politicians and factions made compromises and engaged in horse trading in selecting a new Cabinet for President Abdurrahman Wahid.

One could possibly argue that making compromises is what politicians do all the time. Politicians make compromises and trade-offs to secure what is in their view the best for their constituents. Given the diversity of Indonesian society, compromise by political leaders is even more important. But that is exactly what is wrong with Indonesia today: politicians are making too many compromises, making it difficult to distinguish whether they are acting in the interests of the country or in the interest of their own political survival.

Indonesia has come a long way in the last two years in building the foundations for a real democracy. It has held a general election, amended the Constitution and carried out various political reforms. If the country remains in constant crisis today, in spite of all these political processes, it is because Indonesia is run largely by politicians who are amateur at best in the art of governing.

What the MPR gathering told us is that it will take more than democracy, a solid Constitution and democratically elected politicians to lift Indonesia out of its present multidimensional crisis. What this country does not have is good leadership, one with vision and statesmanship. Until the day that this kind of leadership emerges, this country will be forever condemned to one crisis after another.