Sunday, April 12, 2015

Indonesian Politics – A Return to the Suharto Way to Rule

It has been 17 years since democratic forces put an end to the 32-year iron-fist rule of president Soeharto and embarked on reforms, but political party leaders still love the New Order way of staying in power: being reelected by aklamasi’.

The word aklamasi may have been corrupted from the English word, “acclamation”, which the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a vote to accept or approve someone or something that is done by cheers, shouts, or applause”.

But in the Indonesian context, the dictionary’s definition sounds euphemistic. In order for any political party chief to be elected by way of aklamasi, they have to exert formidable political and financial resources for backroom lobbying ahead of a national party congress.

This way, the congress is nothing but a ceremony to formalize the “election” or “reelection” of party leaders without the participants actually casting their ballots. All party executives who have voting rights have been effectively mobilized during preparatory meetings to agree to give their incumbent chief another term by way musyawarah-mufakat (deliberation for consensus). It is in this forum that the real battle happens.

Then when the party congress opens, the committee announces the aklamasi while the participants accept it by thunderous cheers, shouts, or applause. No objections are raised. What a sweet moment for the (re-)elected chief!

 During the heyday of the New Order era, Soeharto would always be re-elected by aklamasi as president and as chief patron of the Golkar Party — his political machine.

Now, 17 years on, when Indonesia is showered with praise for practicing electoral democracy, almost all party leaders replicate the New Order way to show the world how solid their political organizations are.

The latest case in point is the widely expected re-election of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chief Megawati Soekarnoputri, who has been at the helm since the party was founded in the final years of Soeharto, when she became a symbol of opposition to the New Order regime.

This politics of acclamation was very well exercised by the National Awakening Party (PKB) last year in re-electing Muhaimin Iskandar and by Gerindra in electing Prabowo Subianto, but the tactic does not work for every party leader. It backfired for Aburizal Bakrie of the Golkar Party and Djan Faridz of the United Development party (PPP), with both parties becoming splintered after their rivals launched mutinies.

Next month, the Democratic Party is expected to re-elect by acclamation its founder Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as chief when it hold its congress on Bali. Yudhoyono loyalists have openly made the scenario public.

Not only is the acclamation tactic exercised by “old parties” established during the New Order era — the PPP, the PDI-P and Golkar — but also by those founded after the reform era and designed to be more “modern” and democratic, such as the Democratic Party (PD) and Gerindra.

As a symptom of the well-known oligarchical and superficially democratic leadership successions in Indonesian politics, the practice has only aggravated public distrust in the political institutions that are supposed to educate their members and the public to become future national leaders and sow the seeds of democracy.

The dominant strong, charismatic leaders, such as the PDI-P’s Megawati, the Democratic Party’s Yudhoyono, Gerindra’s Prabowo and the NasDem Party’s Surya Paloh, has given rise to the prevailing feudalistic aklamasi election tactic.

They are highly revered because they are founders of their respective parties. So powerful and revered are they, they have practically become cult leaders. Dissent is easily silenced. A member’s political rise often depends on his or her loyalty to the supreme leader instead of on real merit.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo accepts it with grace when Megawati calls him simply a “[PDI-P] party worker” who ought to toe the party line because any president has to stick to his or her party’s ideology.

When the general election day comes, politicians are out to lure potential voters with their party leaders’ popularity rather than with political platforms and they are not entirely wrong because for most voters it is the popularity of the party leader that matters most.

The resulting absence of regenerarion leads to political parties being dominated by the old guards. So, the PD becomes “synonymous” with Yudhoyono, the PDI-P with Megawati, Gerindra with Prabowo and NasDem with Paloh. The exception is the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which is proud to call itself a “member-based party” and upholds meritocracy.

The old party chiefs who run their political parties like private enterprises and want to cling to power for as long as they wish through undemocratic means should learn from Golkar and the PPP. Both have suffered schisms after the younger members, frustrated by the lack of leadership regeneration, started rebellions.

The pervasive oligarchies in local politics have allowed some political leaders in Jakarta and in the regions to strengthen their political bases by forming political dynasties. At the central level, such figures as Yudhoyono and Megawati have groomed their children and relatives to make sure that the PD and the PDI-P remain under the control of their respective families.

The politics of aklamasi proves that oligarchies give rise to political corruption, cronyism and dynasties. Public trust is wearing thin as political parties are failing to prepare future national leaders and to promote democracy. The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Pos

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