Correspondence: Indonesia’s democratic moments

Correspondence: Indonesia’s democratic moments

The smartphone election

Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi’s) inauguration as Indonesia’s seventh president this month, after trouncing the swaggering former Kopassus (Special Forces) commander Prabowo Subianto by a margin of 6 per cent in July, is an event of seismic significance, not just for the Republic but for all of us.

It proves what’s possible and gives hope to those who despair at the feudalism in other Islamic states. The election has shown that democracy is not incompatible with Islam, that Javanese values of moderation, consensus and reason can trump bombast, threats and vile smear campaigns.

Jokowi’s win came because the unpaid wong kecil (ordinary folk) showed they are smartphone-smarter than professional campaign strategists in social media messaging to muster the masses and alert the electorate. It has also demonstrated that most Indonesians don’t want a return to authoritarian rule and will chance their future in the hands of a cleanskin from outside the sleazy, sclerotic and incestuous Jakarta elite.

A few of these axis-shifting developments were given glancing recognition by Professor Ariel Heryanto in his ‘Indonesia’s Democratic Moments’ essay (Asian Currents, August 2014). However these mighty events have been smothered by his mutterings about Western commentators and electoral systems.

Why no examples of the ‘familiar smugness’ he claimed to find in the international media’s reporting of the election? He must have done a lot of scratching in the musty litter of shredded newsprint to form that opinion; during the campaign the mainstream Western media’s Jakarta-based journalists have reported factually, extensively, impartially and professionally.

Indonesia is a young democracy and the chances of it fracturing and failing have been great because the Establishment feared people power; the New Order’s old general, Prabowo, wanted to turn the nation back to the original Constitution, though it’s likely not all voters understood this meant the death of democracy. If just five million voters had changed their minds on 9 July the grinning ghost of Soeharto (Prabowo’s former father-in-law) would have returned to haunt the land and rout the reformers.

‘Legacies of colonialism’

Professor Heryanto alleges the ‘legacies of colonialism linger on’. The only people who still raise the spectre of this long-spent system are incompetent bureaucrats seeking to flick away their own failures to meet the challenges of today. It’s a timeworn excuse beloved by Suharto, and belongs to the last century.

Professor Heryanto mocks the two major party system that’s evolved in the West. Yet this is the practical way for serious candidates wanting the right to implement policy for all rather than seek power for self. During the 2009 legislative elections in Indonesia there were 38 parties in the race, though only nine won seats. This year there were just 12 parties. In last year’s Australian election nine parties (grouping independents as one) offered themselves to the electorate.

In a democracy politicians learn that compromise and cooperation are essential to survival and that electorates have little abiding interest in narrow-base groups splintering on esoteric ideology. Indonesia is clearly heading in this direction and if the new parliament can develop a constructive opposition then Indonesian democracy will be the richer.

Where are Professor Heryanto’s reasons for opposing mandatory voting, a system operating in 21 countries apart from Australia, even if not all enforce the law? There’s been widespread applause for the 70 per cent turn out in the presidential poll. Stand that statistic on its head—30 per cent were indifferent, indicating there’s an urgent need for education in democracy so all citizens recognise their rights and exercise their responsibilities. Mandatory attendance at the booth goes some way to ensuring the elected government properly reflects the wishes of the people, rather than just those with the energy, time and interest in exercising their civic duties.

Mammoth problems

Indonesia’s president-elect faces mammoth problems in implementing reform. It would be naive to assume his supporters will keep singing from his song sheet, or will stay in the choir should the conductor drop his baton. There may well be a massive campaign to destabilise his administration or undermine his authority. These are issues worthy of Professor Heryanto’s attention. Instead he heads off at a tangent by writing of the ‘contempt of envy’ of those analysing Indonesia’s so called ‘middle class’. The World Bank defines this group as earning the equivalent of more than US$ 4.50 a day. They may have a motorbike on time payment and flash a fancy cellphone, but they still survive hand-to-mouth and rent or live with relatives. The promotion of the ‘middle class’ has been by manufacturers promoting higher consumption, shifting attention away from the estimated 100 million still living on less than US$2 a day.

Where’s the evidence that Professor Heryanto’s ‘instant observers’ have been writing that ‘Indonesia can never get anything right’? Mainstream media have commended the way the election was conducted and the restraint shown by the winner when assaulted by a litany of lies and an arrogant opponent with limitless funds.

The proof can be seen not just in the coverage by the ABC and SBS, News Limited and the Fairfax Press but also in the brilliant (because it illuminated the issues) New Mandala website published by his own university.

Duncan Graham

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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