Thursday, November 14, 2013

Indonesia’s democratic discontents

Despite the global wave of democratization, comparative measures of democracy, such as those initiated by The Freedom House and The Economist Intelligence Unit, consistently show that countries that embarked on democratic transitions in the 1990s are currently experiencing declines in the quality of their democracy. Maybe Indonesia is not immune to this trend.

Today our democracy is characterized by a paradox between a successful opening-up of civil liberties, which has led to an avalanche of public demands and, on the other hand, inertia of democratic institutions in responding to those demands. From remote districts to provincial capitals, we witness citizens demanding better roads, health services, education, etc. These mundane and legitimate demands are often inadequately addressed, and when frustrated, easily turn into violent protests.
Recent findings show that violent demonstrations are overwhelmingly protests against a government’s running of public affairs.

New democracies like Indonesia are bound to be judged by their performance and by comparison with the past regime. If current performance is good, the comparison with the past is less important. But if current performance is bad, the ghost of the undemocratic past will inevitably haunt the nation.

The indication from the streets of Jakarta is that people are comparing the current situation with the past. One sign often seen on the back of trucks shows the late president Soeharto with his usual fatherly smile and a caption in Javanese saying: “How are you? My time was better, wasn’t it?” These are not isolated incidents from diehard Soeharto supporters.

Indeed, this is a symptom of what Kompas columnist Budiarto Shambazy called Sindroma Rindu Soeharto (Longing for Soeharto Syndrome) affecting those to whom the fruits of democracy are still elusive.

The specter of Soeharto reminds us of the optimists and the pessimists of today’s democracy. The optimists view the daily protests as signs that people care and are getting involved in matters that affect them, while the institutional capacity must be continuously improved, strengthened and be more responsive to those demands.

The pessimists see inertia and underperformance of the democratic institutions continue and worry that Indonesia’s democracy is stagnating; if this situation is protracted long enough, what will be questioned is not public services, fair policies, or more accountable politics — but democracy itself.

The challenge is to make sure that Indonesia avoids pessimism and marches confidently along the optimistic track. To do so, Indonesians must work hard to make good governance a reality. When Indonesia embarked on democratic reform, it also shifted the governing paradigm from state-centered to citizen-centered; from government to governance, where all components of society have roles and contributions to create a good society.

To borrow from Berggruen and Gardels, “governance is about how the cultural habits, political institutions and economic system of society can be aligned to deliver the desired good life for its people. Good governance is when these structures combine in a balance that produces effective and sustainable results in the common interest”.

The remedy for Indonesia’s democratic discontent is good governance. In this regard, the recently launched Indonesia Governance Index by the National Development Planning Agency shows that Indonesia has a long way to go. On the scale of one (the lowest) to 10 (the highest), the average composite of provincial governance index was 5.67.

The leading arena, i.e. government/political office performed the worst (5.07) followed by bureaucracy (5.78), economic society (5.72) and civil society (6.33). The economic society index measured the contribution of the private sector in promoting good governance in the province.

The low performance of political office is alarming because with the crucial functions of providing regulatory framework and allocating budget, they set the trend and pace of provincial development. Their low performance is the ceiling to how far the province will be able to progress.

This is clearly shown by the high correlation between provincial government’s performance and the Human Development Index as well as poverty rate for provinces. The message is clear: governance matters.

Abdul Malik Gismar, Jakarta  senior adviser and principal researcher of Indonesia Governance Index at Kemitraan (Partnership for Governance Reform) and associate director of Paramadina Graduate School in Jakarta.

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