Democracy: The Indonesian Experience

06 April, 2011 | Source: Jakarta Post

As a country that has experienced various forms of democracy, Indonesia knows about the struggle between theory and practice.

However, Indonesia today is far from a state of struggle. Rather, after India and the United States, Indonesia is rapidly securing a place in the realm of great, emerging democracies.

It was at the Bali Democracy Forum in 2008, sponsored by Indonesia and Australia, that more than 30 countries came together to exchange ideas on how best to consolidate democracy.

Humble about its successes and shortcomings as a young democracy, Indonesia was quick to promote greater political cooperation with its neighbors, while expressing determination to do what needed to be done at home.

The forum today is alive and kicking with more than 70 countries participating.

In Indonesia, democracy started in 1998 when students took to the streets of Jakarta demanding change. Though its start was bloody, the ball of democracy has never ceased rolling.

During the tenure of the nation’s four post-1998 presidents, massive reforms have radically altered the way that politics and governance are conducted in the country.

Indonesia has learned that the process of trial and error, no matter how imperfect, is the best recipe for success.

Take the example of decentralization. The concept was introduced to empower regions by increasing local spending and, among other things, putting in place a new intergovernmental fiscal system.

The results so far, one has to admit, have not been as sunny as previously forecast. However, as the country continues to mature, its system of government keeps transforming, forcing bureaucrats to learn from their mistakes.

Pending revision of the Law on Local Government, Jakarta is determined to put a hold on the formation of any new districts.

Learning from past mistakes, the Grand Design prepared by the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas) pays special attention to demographic, geographic and administrative matters, along with the classic issue of financing.

Keep in mind that as a nation we are undergoing huge changes. Indonesia is moving from being one of the most centralized nations in the world to one of the most decentralized.

As for the corruption charges facing certain governors and regents, recent legal proceedings have shown that the law is being upheld.

While it is not good news that almost every week a local leader is named a suspect in a corruption case, the reality of the situation is a reminder that our political system, including the electoral process and post-election governance, must be open to improvement to bolster the quality of our democracy.

Democracy in Indonesia has also paved the way for freedom of expression, allowing new groups to emerge and publicly state their identities.

Some have spoken louder than others, promoting views that aren’t necessarily shared by everyone.

Some have stayed the course, sticking to their beliefs, however unpopular. Such freedom of expression is guaranteed by our Constitution — but rest assured, there won’t be room for violence, nor tolerance of vigilantism.

It isn’t easy to bring together the many faces of this nation while keeping everyone in harmony. Such a delicate dance requires versatility, understanding and deftness — all of which must be reflected in the laws and policies that guard our daily lives. This is oft forgotten by the harsh critics of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

As Sun Tzu reminds us: “The masterful leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to proper methods and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.” The President has been elected to two consecutive terms. He must be doing something right.

We must remember that the political stability that we now enjoy, after years of tribulation, has not come cheap.

Ours is a system that mandates that the executive and legislative branches to work closely together, without always seeing eye-to-eye.

After all, no major government activity can be undertaken without the consent of the legislature, whether central or local.

Some may call it horse-trading, but in reality the government and its supporting parties have got to do what it takes to govern through negotiations and, if needed, wrangling.

US president Abraham Lincoln once said: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Furthermore, readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals can certainly appreciate Lincoln’s skillful political outreach in getting his former rivals to join his team. Keeping his goals in focus, the political genius did what he had to.

Though easily misunderstood, such maneuvering is also apparent in Indonesian politics.

However, let there not be any mistake that the end goal is actually for the people to benefit from government programs, which have been aptly defined as having a four-track strategy: pro-poor, pro-growth, pro-job and pro-environment. With three years left in Yuhoyono’s administration, this country can expect to gear up more and more.

Written by Julian Aldrin Pasha, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s spokesman


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