The Cost of Multi-Party Governance in Indonesia

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By: Budiono Kusumohamidjojo

About 70 years ago, President Soekarno wrote in one of his political papers that being part of his Di Bawah Bendera Revolusi (Under the Banner of the Revolution) that a Prime Minister who governed under a Liberal Democracy and succumbed to a vote of no confidence one day would land on the street the next day. Liberalism did not look that dramatic those days, though, let alone nowadays.

However, Soekarno indeed shunned liberalism and its potential turbulent risks, but particularly also because he knew his folk pretty well. Were Soekarno still alive, he would weep to watch liberal-cum-anarchic democracy par excellence being practiced in Indonesia now?

So to distract from the dangers of liberal democracy, he tried to wrap-up Indonesia’s complex diversity into his paradoxical doctrine of NASAKOM (Nasionalis, Agama, dan Komunis or Nationalist, Religious, and Communist) intended to reconcile the nationalist, religious and communist elements under one ideological roof. We knew that it became one of the most important stumbling blocks that led to his disgrace.

About 25 years later, when coming to power in 1966, President Soeharto took the positive side of the unhappy triad NASAKOM, replaced the “Com” with his own political machine: GOLKAR (Golongan Karya or Functional Group), and ruled Indonesia almost with no significant challenge for the next three decades.

He stepped down because it was about time for him, as he just could not come up with the changing strategic circumstances, domestic as well as international, although President Bill Clinton needed one year to urge him to resign (“The Strategist” in TIME, Jan. 30, 2012).

Then in 1998, Soeharto’s New Order was replaced by a political creature named Reformasi, which indeed reformed many things, save the well being of the people at large. Perhaps that is still too good if compared to Martin Luther’s Reformation that brought about a 30-year war ransacking Europe in the 17th century.

Nonetheless, we live or should live in a different age and world to spare people from lots of unnecessary miseries. And yet, Indonesia is suffering from increasing chaos in various sectors, thanks to Reformasi which has ushered Demokrasi, very likely in name only.

It is rather unfortunate that the Reformasi style democracy is based on freedom rather than on liberty. It is basically conceived as freedom from everything that the middle class in any society would despise: authoritarianism, oppression, patronage, dirigisme and the like.

As a matter of fact, Indonesia’s reasonable democracy is still in the process of coming of age, and apparently it needs time to become an enlightened one based on liberty to construct a better future.

No doubt, freedom from Soeharto’s New Order must be coupled with liberty as a mindset to “giving freely, generous, not sparing; open-minded, not prejudiced … for general broadening of the mind” (Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary).

In the aftermath of the May 1998 riots, John Shattuck being Assistant Secretary of State testified in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs that Indonesian politicians must be willing to get out of their respective box of primordial interests and get into the smart give and take exchange in a pluralistic democracy that is the result of Indonesia’s own general elections (Testimony on Human Rights in Indonesia, 1998). After almost 14 years on, it’s sad to watch that Shattuck’s reminder has merely drowned into oblivion.

Indonesian politicians at large have even gone farther into unconstructive if not destructive horse trading commensurate to “politricking” rather than fair and constructive consensus building, which should be a positive consequence of a multi-party democracy.

It is true that the general elections held since Reformasi have become a Darwinian political selection process that entails fewer and fewer political parties. From the 48 political parties endorsed for the general elections in 1999, as a result of the 2009 general elections we have nine political parties represented in the legislature, and still our politicians seem to have learned very little about the tremendous costs of multi-party governance they have inflicted on the people. E.g.: Consider the hanky-panky they play around with ridiculous renovations in the parliament’s premises.

Then compare it to the crumbling bridges and school buildings in the regions, which drew worldwide attention thanks to BBC London news.

Most of our politicians don’t seem to have a heart, and perhaps the worse: They don’t avail over a clear mind as well.

Meanwhile, the ongoing chaotic situation cannot be left out of hand, lest we risk more labor, religious, communal riots and violence rampaging the country, only evincing that the present multi-party system has been ineffective in coming up with decisive solutions. It’s about time that Indonesia needs more than merely democracy, all the more an archaic one, we need order.

If we mean to draw a lesson from the 14 years of dragging Reformasi, nine political parties still seem to be too much. Perhaps we should refer back to the old recipes of Soekarno and Soeharto of maintaining order under a triad, however, which now has to abide by reasonable requirements of the age.

Somehow, a political triad is much better rather than monolithic rule, because as always a triad implies a built-in mutual control. And please be reminded, should there be an indecisive celebrity elected to the office of the president, he or she will be under constant pressure from the tripartite power sharing dynamics to make decisions and to take steps to govern the country, rather than staying aloof and sterile.

As a matter of course, there are always risks abounding with any political system. Soekarno was brought down by his own paradoxical triad, while Soeharto mastered it for three decades as a solid “three in one” regime.

The next simplified party system may well represent the nationalist, religious and the so-called democratically aspired political stake-holders.

We will have to leave it to the next three-party system, how they would deal with the president on a check-and-balance basis to produce order, and justice, and the long sought welfare of the people.

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Notice: This opinion article was quoted in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 16 February 2012. It is able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 23 February 2012].

Dr. Budiono Kusumohamidjojo, formerly Professor of Philosophy of Law, is now off-counsel with Nurhadian, Kartohadiprodjo, and Noorcahyo in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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