Tuesday, February 28, 2012

President Prabowo Looks Pretty Good To Voters Tired of Corrupt Political Elite

On Saturday, the violence-wracked Mesuji district in Lampung again grabbed the headlines as a riot took place, with hundreds of villagers burning down buildings belonging to Barat Selatan Makmur Investindo, a Malaysian palm oil company.

A day before, in Jakarta, disgraced tax official Dhana Wiyatmika earned the dubious honor of being called the “new Gayus,” for allegedly having more than Rp 100 billion rupiah ($11 million) squirreled away in various bank accounts.

These disturbing developments form the backdrop for continuing revelations about politicians under investigation for fraud on a monumental scale and show that almost 14 years after the fall of Suharto, not much has changed in Indonesian politics. It is in this light that we should view the apparent rise of Prabowo Subianto on the political scene.

With the public asking serious questions about the country’s future, the so-called reformist government remains in paralysis. The Economist wrote last week that “barely half-way through his second term,” President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono “already looks like a lame duck.” More than 50 percent of his orders go unheeded, the magazine said.

Then, in a press release that shocked many, the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) announced that Prabowo, a former general who has been accused of serious human rights abuses, came in a strong second in a survey of the electability of potential presidential candidates. He beat out the likes of former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie and Hatta Rajasa, the coordinating minister of the economy and the National Mandate Party (PAN) head.

While Prabowo still finished behind former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), many analysts believe that Megawati’s support base has reached its limits, with few people impressed with her record as president.

But Prabowo’s hasn’t.

Not surprisingly, a human rights group immediately blasted the survey as flawed because it didn’t consider the records of the potential candidates. Yet, the results might not be that far off, and indicate that the Indonesian political mentality is still wedded to the past. Politicians, rather than behaving as servants of the people doing their best to provide solutions to the nation’s problems, behave like petty autocrats, whose whims and demands need to be satisfied.

In Indonesia today, the country has lots of small autocrats doing whatever they like with impunity. Suharto back during his rule got away with his strong fist and strong economic growth. Carrot and stick, many loved it. He provided order and prosperity, and a certainty that “bapak” knew what was best for the country. Sure, there was a lot of corruption and utter disregard for human rights, but many felt that was a fair price for good economic policy.

The blame for the rising acceptance of the new authoritarianism can be placed squarely on successive governments that monumentally failed to grasp that politicians are public servants and responsible to the people they govern.

As with any authoritarian ruler, most Indonesian politicians appear fiercely resistant to being questioned, having their performance examined, their results evaluated and their bank accounts scrutinized. And as often as not, when they are asked to explain themselves, they are suspected of lying. Two politicians were pointedly reminded in court last week that they were under oath and required to tell the truth and warned of the seriously consequences of perjury. A public campaign briefly urged them likewise. Clearly there is a perception out there that some politicians are ethically immature and devoid of integrity.

Politicians could avoid this by being transparent, showing to the public that they have nothing to hide. And yet, since the fall of Suharto, Indonesian politicians have been unable to decide whether politics is an exercise in public and open governance or a matter of private and hidden commercial business transactions.

‘The day-by-day revelations of tainted government would indicate the dominant mentality veers toward the latter view. Nothing is sacred. Even hajj funds entrusted by the devout to the Ministry of Religious Affairs are suspected of being misappropriated. With everything being swept under the rug, hidden from the plain view, abuses and corruption grow unchecked.

We can all imagine politicians sitting around in a coffee shop in the foyer of the House of Representatives, plotting deals and corruption. Some politicians apparently think the country is best governed when they behave as if there are no people in the country — only themselves and the treasury.

There is a sense that the ruling political elite does not have a clue how to govern, as Yudhoyono’s government seems to be running from one scandal to another. Seeing little leadership at top and being fed a daily diet of scandals, people feel our politicians are taking their wages unfairly. They reap where they do not sow. As a result, even though the economy is growing, disappointment in the government keeps increasing.

Thus, in these times of crisis people look for stability. That may well explain the increasing wave of nostalgia, as people recall the “good” old days when life was so simple and at the same time prosperous. Even if it wasn’t. This, in turn, leads to the rise of Prabowo. Regardless of his human rights record, at least to some it seems that finally here is someone with the guts and charisma to get things done.

The big question is: if elected, what will he get done and how will he do it? In reality, there are no indications that any of the current potential candidates are capable of offering anything new.

What they all have in common is the collective mind-set that says government is best done on the basis of a network of relationships of elected and non-elected elites and their cronies. Only this results in deals getting done, money being made and power being consolidated and handed on in a dynastic fashion, with the public placated or too intimidated to complain.

To be sure, this is a variation of authoritarianism. They may have different names, but the tactics indicate that Indonesia is politically dominated by a one-party system of government — because all parties seem to be doing things the same way.

This is ultimately unworkable. Until someone steps up and has the courage, wisdom and will to break with the authoritarian past, Indonesia will continue to evolve as a booming economy that does not provide economic and social benefits to the nation but only to a few. It will be a limping democracy, hamstrung by material success that is not accompanied by political reform.

That would leave the country ripe for the continuous picking and plundering of the various mobs that keep it in line, both within the House and on the streets.

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan). Phillip Turnbull is a theology teacher based in Jakarta.(Jakarta Globe)

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