Saving Democracy

Article excerpt


Indonesia's elections will be a test for democratic progress. They are crucial in determining whether the transition began in 1999 after the overthrow of President Suharto can be saved. Parliamentary polling takes place this month and for the first time voters will directly elect their president and vice-president in July. But it is unclear whether this will produce capable national leaders to guide the country.

RESIDENT MEGAWATI Sukarnoputri came to prominence as leader of the opposition to President Suharto's regime. The daughter of popular former President Sukarno, she has a special hold on people's affection. But her leadership is now criticised by many for failing to meet expectations, particularly on the issue of corruption, which is widely believed to be growing rampantly in government bureaucracy, parliament and even legal institutions.

In February, parliament speaker Akbar Tandjung won a Supreme Court appeal against conviction for embezzlement of state funds. Tandjung is also chairman of the Golkar party, the main supporter of Suharto's dictatorship for more than thirty years. His was the most prominent corruption trial and there is pessimism about the prospect of law enforcement as a result. Even though many have promised to respect the verdict, legal experts are examining it.

Three main forces are at work in the election process: populism, traditionalist conservativism, and machine politics. The populist force is represented by Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), whose rhetoric is designed to advance its charismatic leader as the defender of ordinary people. As with populist movements elsewhere, the party does not emphasise a programme or have a tight organisational structure. Mass mobilisation compensates for the lack of grass-roots organisation.

The party leadership relies heavily on its wide appeal and image to inspire loyalty. As the daughter of the greatest populist figure in Indonesia, Megawati is able to attract that sort of support. But a comparison with Sukarno's progressive left-wing populism reveals the more conservative nature of his daughter's party. Megawati's politics are not a continuation of her father's.

Although her party is considered to represent ordinary people, it has never portrayed itself in this way, nor as the victim of Suharto's repression. Neither has it made any effort to organise locally with unions or peasant associations, preferring to keep a distance from such groups because they tend to have independent points of view that could create obstacles to Megawati's personal appeal. The party sees its branches as command posts to mobilise, not as places to provide solutions to voters' problems.


In contrast to the populists, traditional-conservative parties are much more complex. They have extensive political networks with local patrons. Some Islamic parties lack a charismatic national figure but possess thousands of such patrons, mainly religious leaders or teachers who establish grass-roots community links through religious boarding schools or study activities.

The relationship between patrons and their communities is unequal because of disparities of wealth and access to political and spiritual authority. This allows Islamic parties to draw political support from religious communities only through the patrons.

A study on the powerful position of religious leaders on Madura Island, one of the strongholds of the biggest Islamic party - the United Development Party - shows that they are at the top of a pyramid. Right below them are residential disciples who study religion in boarding schools, followed by village religious teachers, mosque leaders and finally villagers, who consider those at the apex to be their patrons. …