Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Democracy In Indonesia

Indonesia matters a great deal. Of course all countries, all societies matter in their specific ways. But as it's often pointed out, Indonesia has a significance beyond the borders of the country itself. It has the largest Muslim population in the world and is the location of a number of reactionary Islamist political groups with transnational linkages. It saw the fall of one of the most brutal of the Cold War, right-wing dictators because of the regime's own internal contradictions and in 1999 became the world's third largest (fledgling) democracy but with the elites still very much entrenched. It was the country most badly-affected by the Asian financial crisis and IMF-imposed austerity packages have palpably worsened the living conditions for the majority. It is barely held together by an official nationalism that "imagines" the Indonesian state while at the same is beset by secessionist struggles from Aceh in the west to Papua in the east. And, of course, it was devastated by the recent earthquake-tsunami catastrophe. Each of these issues - taken alone - would create significant tensions and upheavals. Together they constitute a very grave crisis that could have repercussions for the region and further afield.

To my mind, the most serious question facing Indonesia today is the trajectory of democracy. In turn, this has huge bearing on the possibiltiies for resolving the separatist struggles that threaten to tear the country asunder and for the attempts to reorient the political economy away from market fundamentalism. Nearly everyone agrees that the roadmap since the fall of Suharto has been dominated by internationally promoted attempts at crafting negotiated pacts within the elite at the expense of broader involvement of the popular democratic movement. In fact there has been a deliberate strategy of de-politicising civil society and social movements that had been at least partly instrumental in getting rid of the tyrant. It's a famliar pattern from elsewhere. For all the international support, the democratic institutions are in a shambles, political corruption is as rife as ever and decentralisation of state power has merely given rise to local bossism and semi-privatised violence. Nearly seven years on and those who advocate democratic institution-building have little to offer than more of the same.

As a result, democracy – or least in any meaningful, participatory sense – is in deep trouble. People are palpably disappointed. For those who were looking for an alternative way of building a better society, democracy has made little sense so far. The election of the former military officer, Susulo Bambang Yudhoyono, as president last year can even be read as a kind of nostalgia for a strong leader or for "enlightened" authoritarian solutions to the country's manifold problems.

All of this raises serious questions of what might be done. Indonesia's democracy is delegative and not at all representative. The euphoria and momentum that were gained from the initial overthrow of the New Order have long gone. The elites are in firm control once again and have reappropriated powers for themselves through the old tricks of corruption, collusion and nepotism. And the democracy movement is largely contained to the important, but hardly transformative, actions of lobbying, advocacy and interest-based campaigns.

There is an obvious need for a renewed democracy agenda though there are no blueprints for this. The challenges are enormous. Any meaningful alternative cannot be rooted in assumptions about elite-led change nor in the blase prescriptions of international democracy experts. It can only be built on the efforts – the long-term efforts – of popular forces who can develop the organisational capacities on the ground to foster substantial democratisation. And this will mean that vital parts of the political system – including state and local government as the bastions of actually existing elite democracy – will have to be challenged. There are no shortcuts. But maintaining the status quo is no solution to the hopes that were once raised for a better society.


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