Commentary: Learn to Deal With Democracy in Discord, or It Dies


JANUARY 23, 2015

Indonesia’s domestic political situation right now, beset as it is by factionalism and entrenched standoffs, speaks volumes about our society’s ability to cope with the polarization and confrontation inherent in democracy.

We see a situation where parties are pursuing incompatible goals, and thus there is a gap in which actors perceive matters from different angles.

Can we continue to function like this?

Current standoffs include those between: 1) the National Police and the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission); 2) the president and the legislature; 3) parties within the legislature; and 4) between Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Joko Widodo, over the former’s accusation this week that the latter is “cleaning out his [Yudhoyono’s] men” — a rather obvious observation, if perhaps phrased in a misleading metaphor, of Joko’s decision to replace National Police Chief Gen. Sutarman months ahead of his mandatory retirement with three-star graft and money laundering suspect Comr. Gen. Budi Gunawan.

In his reply to Yudhoyono’s Facebook trolling, Joko rejected his predecessor’s characterization of recent senior personnel changes as a “cleansing” — while in the same breath defiantly asserting that doing so is his unilateral prerogative as president, if he so chooses.

One wonders whether the president, in his denial of “cleansing,” meant that despite the apparent purge Joko has committed to, he’s keeping around enough Yudhoyono cronies to placate the demands of patronage and political optics — or whether, more simply, Joko means that the new set of cronies he’s installing aren’t really all that clean.

Much like Yudhoyono’s bizarrely inappropriate attempt to reassert authority over the presidency from the shadows of his political twilight, accusations of undue political influence by the KPK color the nominally nonpartisan law enforcement body’s decision to name Budi as a suspect in its investigation of “fat” transactions moving through his bank account — only after the president nominated him for the job as the country’s top cop.

Yet rather than giving the KPK praise and thanks for identifying an enormous ethical liability, House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Fadli Zon of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) condemned the KPK for exceeding its mandate by intervening in politics.

“Bagman Budi,” as he has come to be known, is not the only threat to the rule of law in Indonesia: The intractable turf war between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the police over rent-seeking rackets and authority in handling national security matters shows no signs of abating.

At the heart of all these disputes is the question of who holds legitimacy, and is entitled to exercise which functions of government, in a society relatively new to the practice of democracy and all of the discord of that its factional competition inherently entails.

How long can such serious disagreements and unpleasant feelings among the state’s institutions and its people continue before it poses a threat to national stability?

So much depends on what we expect an acceptable outcome of democratic processes to be.

One way of framing the situation would be to ask if Joko can initiate and maintain harmony in his government.

This would be entirely wrong.

Indonesia has had seven presidents, and each of them had experienced a turbulent period during their presidency, though in different degrees of magnitude.

Joko bears responsibility for cleverly managing conflicting interests and ignoring factors that may further shake the foundation of his government.

But this duty does not belong solely to the president; it’s one he shares with other political actors.

In this respect, nautical metaphors for the so-called “ship of state” run aground; while the president may be captain of his administration’s efforts to steer a wise course, Indonesia, unlike the crew of a vessel operating under admiralty law (effectively a dictatorship) is a democracy.

Society would do well to be reminded that Indonesia has emerged from the discord of what many inside the country saw as a crisis in the run-up to last July’s presidential election — and what others outside the country saw in less hysterical terms as a rather ordinary election — stronger for having tested its limits.

Now the challenge is clearing out the cobweb of problems that have been institutionally enshrined as untouchable — and which festered in the dark over many years not because of internal conflicts, but rather for lack of them.

While a reasonable observer would be wise to question Joko’s recent decisions, the president and his political operators throughout the government deserve some credit for not avoiding open conflict or retreating from public view as Yudhoyo’s administration so often did.

The pre-election period saw Joko “buoyed by the public, weighed by rivals, and anchored by his patron, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri.”

Even the current tenor of Indonesia’s political discourse offers signs of encouragement: The public’s virulent reaction to Budi Gunawan’s nomination and the ensuing lovefest confirmation hearings he enjoyed in the House provoked such sturm-und-drang in social media that any political observer should rest assured that the democratic spirit is alive in well in the public’s enthusiastic and excited expression of disdain.

We should really be alarmed when the public becomes apathetic — and that is where we are headed if we do not tackle corruption, contempt and distrust.

None of these feelings contribute toward building a healthy, prosperous society unless we act upon them productively.

Joko’s refusal to inaugurate Budi after the House confirmed his nomination has provoked impeachment threats from legislators unaccustomed to the terms of operating as a loyal opposition in a divided government: Disagreement with the president on the merits of a decision that is entirely within his constitutional and legal prerogative does is not grounds for his removal, even if done through constitutional processes.

Legislators would be wise to respect the awesome responsibility they hold, but respect the limits of their power: They can help keep Joko honest, but if they press forward with impeachment, as they once did with Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, and especially with a president as internationally popular as Joko (for all the right reasons), reaction by the markets and Indonesia’s partners could be crippling.

Disharmony is not just a feature of the current state of domestic politics, but also a feature of our imperfect democratic system — which, as Winson Churchill famously said, is the worst form of government, except for all the alternatives.

One wonders how the Indonesian experiment in democracy will unfold, and whether its various factions’ struggle in pursuit of self-interest will sink or save us.

Will we each manage to see matters from the perspective of a common interest, when there may not be a meeting of the minds as to what that interest is?

The world is watching to find out.

Bantarto Bandoro is a senior lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University’s School of Defense Strategy in Sentul, Bogor