Thu, 25 Dec 2003

The 2004 elections: The enemy within

Satish Mishra UNSFIR Jakarta

2004 is an important year. This is the year when Indonesian democracy either opens its doors to a new wave of consolidation and reform or retreats along the historically familiar path towards a new kind of authoritarianism. These elections will decide whether Indonesian democracy will experience a rebirth or continue to suffer slow suffocation for a second time in fifty years. That seems like an exaggeration. It may not be too far from the truth. Consider the following facts.

Despite the claims of economists and financial experts regarding impressive progress in economic reform over the last three years, the public mood remains one of deep distrust. People worry about jobs and not national income statistics. Unemployment matters. It is commonplace to hear that Indonesia is too poor to have an unemployment problem. This is splitting hairs. Open unemployment remains higher than many industrial countries and the wide prevalence of underemployment means that people cannot make ends meet even when willing to work long hours at low wages.

The perception of rising economic inequality serves to deepen public frustration further. In most countries consumption booms are signs of economic confidence, the type of signal for which both bankers and investors keep a sharp lookout. In Indonesia the consumption boom has been in luxury cars and imported gadgetry, factors that reek of social injustice in difficult times.

This view is further reinforced by rumors that former owners of distressed conglomerates are back in business often stronger than before, thanks to the acceleration of IBRA sales in a buyers market. Initial results from a study by the United Nations Support Facility for Indonesian Recovery show that asset concentration in the business sector might have even increased during the course of the last six years. Witness the fact that many famous brand names and retail outlets, Sogo, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and a host of others, signal not a vote of renewed confidence in Indonesia but purchases of brand names at small commissions by well known Indonesian conglomerates of the New Order vintage.

Two other factors add to this perception of rising economic inequality. First, decentralization in Indonesia continues to be driven by resource rich regions. Yet out of the more than 400 districts in the country only around 13 can be classified as resource rich. Widening public expenditure authority without the revenue to go with it, and without a convincing formula for combating inter-regional economic disparities, confirms what most people seem to believe; that future growth will benefit the already well off regions.

Second, there is the China factor. China's entry into the WTO, as well as its ability to attract more foreign investment than any other developing country, has heightened concern about possible job losses due to foreign competition. It has also given employers a weapon which to beat the workers and resist any further upward wage adjustments even where productivity might be rising. The reported migration of Korean and Japanese businesses to Vietnam, China, India and Bangladesh adds to the fear of globalization that the China syndrome has ignited.

All this is not good news for an emerging democracy. Public euphoria at the fall of an autocracy can easily turn to public disgust. Even worse it can turn in to nostalgia for the past.

Part of the problem is the inability or unwillingness of post- New Order politicians to spell out what democracy actually means to the lives of ordinary citizens. There is no attempt to explain to the ordinary citizen the rights and rituals of democracy, no spelling out of claims and responsibilities, no evaluation of the damage done by the kleptocracy that passed as orderly government of the New Order. Is it therefore surprising that in less than six years since the fall of Soeharto, democracy is equated with chaos and dictatorship with leadership and stability?

This is the inevitable consequence of political parties who jockey for parliamentary and government seats without any defined political positions. Civil society organizations carp and complain at the margins of political life, content to safeguard their image and chastity from the depredation of the state and large business.

The consequence is a stark imbalance between the reform of the economy and that of other aspects of national life: the state apparatus, the judiciary, the police and military, the political parties and civil society in general. In most other democratic transitions it is precisely these aspects of reform which form the building blocks of a new governing structure. They are not dependent on 7 percent growth. They are the enabling conditions which make a new kind of growth possible: more regulated, more stable and widely shared.

The elevation of the importance of macroeconomic recovery, the absence of any transparent plan of political reform and the ambivalent attitude to corruption in high places has created a deep seated cynicism in the public mind. This has bred a number of other anxieties: separatism and disintegration of the nation state, the capture of political power by a resurgent business elite, and the lack of any serious leadership which can give the country a sense of will and direction.

This is fertile ground for the re-entry of the previously discredited elite into Indonesian public life. The stakes are high. As Gus Dur reminds us, direct elections for the President means that the "winner will take all". For a potential winner from the New Order camp, future economic recovery will make the job easier. It will be used to prove that order and leadership is what matters in Indonesian politics.

But things are not as bad as that. The political and constitutional changes already undertaken, though often flawed, make an effortless retreat to authoritarian structures of the past unlikely. Decentralization, parliamentary reform, the establishment of independent institutions such as the Constitutional Court, the Audit Commission and the Central Bank, and the initial steps in military reform should discourage an unthinking comparison with the 1950s.

This means that attempts to recreate the power structures of the past will face deeper and more organized resistance than before. The absence of a common enemy such as the fear of communism, which provided the glue for military-Islamic cooperation of the 1960s, cannot be repeated in the post-Cold War world. The military, no longer the darling of the nation, is faced with growing internal division. Memories of the independence movement have begun to fade. A new more open political system, driven by a free press is beginning to take root. Religious teaching and influence are beginning to penetrate the rather monastic world of the average soldier.

What are the prospects for a post-2004 Indonesia? The first, and perhaps the more likely, is the retreat to old ways of doing business: the return of a new, more fragmented form of cronyism headed by born-again-casts from the New Order. For a while, they might even try to recreate a new vintage of dictatorship. This would mean more instability and a setback on the road to economic recovery. It may even mean a resurgence of violent social unrest or separatist dissent.

This is not however the end of the story. As has been the experience of many countries in transition to democracy, the political pendulum is likely to swing back by 2009. The extent to which it does so will depend on the engines of democratic reform itself: Political parties, media, civil-society organizations.

It will depend on creating a new kind of leadership which can work collectively towards working out the steps of a Second Wave of reformasi.

To understand what needs to be included in the agenda for the Second Wave they must go to the people. They must engage with those who oppose them. Democracy is about representing the people. It is not about hiding in the comforting company of our own fellow travelers or feeling virtuous in the, self-cleansing rituals of some select band of brothers. It is time to get real. It is time to recognize the enemy within. It is time to look in the mirror. The enemy within is not to be found among the detractors of democratic government, but in the ranks of its defenders.