Thu, 27 May 2004

The issue of leadership in Indonesian democracy

Satish Mishra, Jakarta

During its Second Wave of Reform Indonesia must complete three inter-related tasks in record time: Abandon dictatorship in favor of a more open and representative political system, establish competitive and fair market systems, and, while this great transformation is attempted, reduce pressures for social divisions and violence.

It is a task beyond the competence of text books and clever state officials. It will involve the mobilization of the collective national mind and the discipline and patience to turn ideas into results. Such a mobilization of public energy requires a serious political agenda. Where do we begin?

Perhaps we should begin with that complicated and never ending question of national leadership. A new political agenda based on public support rather than civic control requires the emergence of a new kind of political leadership, one driven by vision and direction, a leadership not rooted in family lineage or personal wealth but in public trust and following.

It does not take much reflection to realize that strong leadership is not after all only a prerogative of generals and bureaucrats. The world's greatest social and political movements, its great scientific and institutional innovations as well as its economic revolutions have hardly ever been linked to the man on horseback.

The point is not that generals never make great leaders but that they do so through a whole set of qualities and attributes quite independent from their military training and background. Different tasks require different kinds of skills.

One of the great leveling virtues of democratic government is that it provides opportunities for people from all walks of life; from a general such as Eisenhower to an actor such as Reagan, from a poet such as Havel to a pilot such as Rajiv Gandhi, from a dockworker such as Walesa to a former prisoner such as Mandela, to emerge as national leaders.

It is not the military background which counts. It is the talent for compromise and negotiation, of building coalitions and partnerships and of painstakingly building public constituency and support.

If today's leaders are not to become tomorrow's dictators, new leadership must be situated in the elaborate structure of checks and balances common in modern democracies. In the Indonesia of the future, the temptations of power must be tempered by the counter balancing of different institutions founded on a core belief in some basic, universal set of rights of human, civil and social rights.

Both state and civil society are necessary for such a system to function. Building the new, more balanced, democratic political system is a national enterprise. It is not a monopoly of state institutions. All of this requires a great change in mind set. It also demands great humility.

A central reason for building strong civil society and improving its interaction with the state is the contribution that this makes to political stability in democratic systems.

The importance of such stability has been understood rather late in the day in Indonesia largely through the expressed concerns of would be investors who cited legal and political uncertainty as reasons for preferring other destinations for their much needed capital.

An interesting implication of this view is that economic recovery in the present Indonesian context depends more on the reform of governing institutions than on traditional economic indicators such as inflation, exchange rates or the magnitude of current account or budget deficits. The crucial issue then is to understand the factors which promote the political stability that potential investors seek.

Some people feel that political stability can be guaranteed only by a single ruler. This is not a very sensible conclusion. As we have seen, even long standing dictatorships can collapse suddenly, reversing most of the economic gains made in earlier times.

The experience of consolidated democracies over the last two hundred years shows that real political stability comes from stable institutions guided by creative leaders, not just by individuals who possess special powers or insights.

Effective and lasting political institutions not only help to groom better leaders but also prevent breakdowns in times of poor leadership. Without stable and efficient political institutions, individual leadership will achieve only temporary successes. This is not an excuse for bad leadership.

Clearly therefore, we need to take a number of very important steps to bring certainty and stability to Indonesia of the future.

First, we must create a democratic political structure based on an effective separation and balance of powers. This will prevent the rise of another dictator. By itself, however, it will not create effective, well functioning institutions.

For that we will have to take the second key step in political reform, to ensure that each part of the political system: Executive, parliament, judiciary, and civil society are strong enough to generate an overall capacity for making timely and firm decisions on major issues affecting our society.

No institution works in a cultural or social vacuum. Organizations alone however well established cannot create institutional stability. For that we need the trust created by social capital. This is especially important in democratic political systems since their legitimacy is founded on the will of the majority as expressed by free and fair elections.

State institutions can work best if supported by appropriate forms of social capital which create a collective trust in the legitimacy of the democratic state.

For this to happen we need to take the third important step in the consolidation of democracy: The creation of an enabling environment for the rebuilding of social capital and trust weakened under long years of controlled political life.

Civil society organizations, from doctors' professional associations to charities and educations foundations to football clubs and political parties, are all ways of empowering the citizen to play an active part in the organization of social and political life.

Far from being a threat to the democratic state, civil society is part of the safety valve that makes democratic political systems resilient to unexpected shocks. It is this property which lies at the source of the economic progress of mature democracies in the world today. The point is not that these countries have not had their share of shocks, but they are able to face them without a breakdown of their entire political and social fabric.

Democratic societies are not unregulated societies.

The fourth critical step in the stabilization of Indonesian political life therefore is the defining and enforcing of a set of rights and responsibilities of the ordinary citizen. These core values of democracy constitute the social glue on which the governing edifice of democracy must actually rest.

The writer is Head/Chief Adviser of UNSFIR (a joint project of Government of Indonesia and UNDP). The views expressed here are strictly personal.