Monday, December 22, 2008

Problems of Participation

Larry Diamond has noted in one of his works that one paradox of democracy is that in some circumstances a political system can be made more stably democratic by making it somewhat less representative. At the same time, electoral system is the central rule of the game determining who governs in a polity. Its position is so important that careful steps should be taken before taking any decision to adopt any kind of electoral system, be it the proportional representation, the district system or the mixture of the two. This is what has so far been done by the so called political reformers in the post-Suharto Indonesia. In the name of limiting ethnic or regional movements and promoting more stable politics by encouraging broad-based parties, Indonesian political reformers purposely adopted an electoral system that provides necessary means to achieve the agenda of "stable democratic polity" in Indonesia.

Through a combination of spatial registration for political parties, pressures for smaller parties to amalgamate into larger ones, reductions in the electoral system's proportionality requirement, and regional vote-distribution requirements for presidential elections, political reformers in Indonesia have attempted to engineer the development of a few large parties with a national reach. However, the results of both 1999 and 2004 general elections showed the opposite. Instead of resulting in a moderate multi-partism, the general elections further fragmented the already fragmented party system. While the numbers of parties have reduced significantly in the 2004 general elections, on the contrary, parliamentary fragmentation increased. Measures to promote nationally focused parties and limit the enfranchisement of minorities have had some modest successes, but have not fundamentally changed the nature of electoral politics.

So far as the process of political engineering in Indonesia is concerned, it has been focussing more on protecting the incumbents and the continuance of the status quo. It is yet to focus on utilizing the opportunity to engineer substantial political transformation. Even though legislative framework continued to be enhanced through enactment of new laws prior to the successor election with the aim of creating more credible electoral process and achieving more representative results, this incrementalism has resulted in the elections being tightly scheduled creating major logistical complexity with little time for appropriate planning. Moreover, the drastic reduction in the district magnitude in the 2004 general elections has considerably raised the threshold for electoral victory and made it much more difficult for smaller parties to win seats than at previous elections, when districts were based on entire provinces. This electoral arrangement is considerably more advantageous to the large, well-organized, established parties than towards smaller, new parties, and threatens the prospect of wider political representation.

Several observers had suspected that the prolonged last minute preparation may be deliberate to avoid public scrutiny to the internal political process of the parties in putting forward nomination and as a cloak to shift public attention from demanding political accountability. Furthermore, the tight scheduling is believed to have benefited political elites close to the central party boards and deprived regional candidates. Political oligarchy has been holding captive the efforts to achieve the common good and to improve the process of political representation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Travails of Indonesian Democracy

Since the ending of President Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, Indonesia has been undergoing a systemic transition towards full-fledged democracy encompassing the economy, the political system, the judiciary and societal life. Some of the primary institutional choices pertaining to the structure of government, most notably the relationship between the executive branch and the legislature, have, at least for now, been resolved. Two successfully administered democratic elections in 1999 and 2004, four constitutional amendments and the reform of basic political laws, have also introduced democratic practices and the principles of good governance. New political parties have been allowed to form and contest general elections and the president has been directly elected.

In a huge effort, the country is undergoing the decentralisation of government and services, delegating power from the centre to hundreds of districts and municipalities. The process of Indonesia's transition to democracy is substantially real and the pace in which it tries to absorb and instil democratic practices and the principles of good governance is remarkably impressive.

Despite all the progress on democratisation that has been made, however, the transition is still fragile. Indonesia's economy is struggling to absorb the huge numbers of unemployed and new graduates annually, and poverty, rampant corruption and occasional outbreaks of ethnic violence create a sentiment of mistrust in the government and its institutions. The country’s leaders are forced to redefine the role of government and the relationship with its citizens. The direct election of regional government heads has brought government closer to the people and thereby increases the demand for better services and greater accountability.

Furthermore, in young democracy, the performance of governments in terms of delivering social and economic advancement is critical for legitimacy and political survival. Prolonged failure to meet minimal public expectations invites the possibility of not just the fall of a particular government, or even a series of particular governments, but the breakdowan of democracy. Chronic and severe undeperformance not only begets mounting public dissatisfaction, but opens the door to ambitious political actors who may seek to take advantage of the situation and seize power themselves. Thus it would be dangerous to be complacent about governance in a young democracy such as Indonesia. The reformasi movement which was marked by the downfall of Suharto's regime has not yet been able to achieve the ultimate goal of entrenching the principles of good governance and substantial democracy in Indonesia.