Surabaya legislative body educates itself for more autonomy
By Sirikit Syah
SURABAYA (JP): There are always excuses. "This is a transition period and most local legislators don't have the experience." Hence legislators are always excused if they make odd statements, draw wrong conclusions, or make lousy plans. They were also excused when they reelected the controversial city mayor.
Many Surabayans were left wondering who actually chose the unpopular city mayor for a second term last month.
Soenarto is notorious for the city flood disaster and was recently sued by the Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI) for destroying the city's environment.
"Who elected him? The city council (DPRD)? Who were they representing?" These questions were heard on campuses, in street stalls, three-wheeled public bemo and buses.
In anticipating protests, the installment ceremony was tightly guarded. Soenarto reportedly pledged he would make the country's second largest city secure, ensure there were no hungry residents by increasing rice contributions, step up efforts against school drop-outs and help to increase religious resilience as a shield against drug abuse in his constituency.
The case of the mayor's election raised questions whether -- under regional autonomy -- the local legislative body would become so powerful that it would no longer need to listen to its constituents.
Under the new law the local legislative bodies (DPRD) have more power than they had previously towards regional heads of government; a change reflecting people's desire to do away with rubber stamp representative bodies.
But how would they manage such authority when Jakarta was no longer running everything? On the other hand, the larger freedom of the local legislators has exposed their self-acknowledged dire lack of expertise and experience.
"This is the common disease of any transition period, they have a lot of excuses," Aribowo, a political observer from Airlangga University, said. The sense that the elected representatives do not represent the constituents may be partly blamed on the electoral system.
"Some DPRD members do not feel attached to the people because the election wasn't part of a district system. They are more attached to, and very much influenced by, the party, not the people."
The 1998 election combined the proportional and district systems, with the result that the central board of political parties still determined their candidates for local legislative bodies. An executive of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), complained that "good" cadres lost out and did not get enough seats.
So the local legislators "soon became state symbols," Aribowo said. "No matter what people say, they can just ignore them."
He cited the example of the salary raise of DPRD members in East Java. Despite heavy criticism in the media and public polls questioning the legislators' performance, along with their insensitivity to the hardships of the voting public, the decision to raise their salary by 40 percent went through with little problem.
Allocation of the provincial budget, Aribowo said, was also an area which exposed legislators' shortcomings.
"It is always how many percent for you and how many percent for me. It shouldn't be like that. DPRD must have a clear concept in their program plan and budgeting to enable an optimal use of the budget," Aribowo said.
High expectations of legislators would be more realistic following the next election, he said.
"Tight selection within the party would offer better results. The more rational the party is the better the impact would be in recruitment of DPRD members."
Budi Darma, a noted artist and lecturer at Surabaya State University, said that the transition period towards establishing a more credible legislative body should not be too long.
"It would be a joke if they needed to adjust themselves for five years," he said. He insisted that legislators seek self improvement by educating themselves.
"The executives now are more well informed and well prepared in their respective fields, while DPRD members are newcomers in their professions and have no background on the executives and their related responsibilities, which legislators must control and evaluate," Budi Darma said.
He suggested that the DPRD recruit consultants in various disciplines.
"If it's too expensive for every legislator to have an expert staff, they could have one in every commission. He or she could be a vital resource in equipping legislators with necessary background information."
Special committees in the legislative bodies also should have such consultants, he said.
Aribowo said pressure from the public, including students, artists, non-government organizations, the media and intellectuals, would encourage legislators to learn.
"We should all watch them. That's one way to push them to be professionals," he said.
Actually education is a priority at the Surabaya legislative council. "Any member who wants to continue his or her study will be supported," explained H. Herman, the council's deputy speaker. It is not that most members have low level of education.
"The press and the people have the wrong perception that we are not educated people. About 85 percent of Surabaya DPRD members are university graduates," Herman said.
By supporting further education, Herman was referring to postgraduate education, workshops and short courses such as in banking and the law.
"We know we must prepare ourselves," he added. "We admit that the executives have been there for some time, so they know what they are doing and talking about."
Herman said that experts were in a number of commissions and special committees with whom legislators could consult.
The special committee on land cases, chaired by Herman, works with experts on drafting regulations. The committee also files reports to the police where necessary.
"So far reports to the mayor have only resulted in concerned officials like district and subdistrict heads being transfered without any further punishment."
DPRD Surabaya also works with universities and non-government organizations. Despite the lack of experience and knowledge compared to government officials, Herman is convinced that the adjustment would not take too much time.
"No, not the entire five years of our term. In one year, I promise you, we'll be perfectly adjusted."
The writer is a Surabaya-based journalist.