Thursday, July 01, 2004
  When he writes, one should take heed.
Just this once, I've decided to write very little. Although next Monday will see the first ever direct election for the Indonesian President ~ a truly historic event, I cannot find anything of substance to relate. All candidates promise a better life, higher salaries for teachers and lower unemployment, but none seem to offer anything beyond their charisma, if they've got any.

In 1999 World Press Review honored the Indonesian editor Goenawan Mohamad as International Editor of the Year. The award goes to an editor outside the United States in recognition of enterprise, courage, and leadership in advancing the freedom and responsibility of the press, enhancing human rights, and fostering excellence in journalism.

He has long been associated with Tempo, which was banned by Suharto towards the end of the New Order era. Now this weekly magazine, which offers commentary and analysis of Indonesian affairs, thrives and is published in both Indonesian and English. I've given a permanent link on the right to the online Tempo Interactive, from which the following article has been lifted.

INDONESIA is entering an exciting time. This republic, as it nears its 60th birthday, is on the threshold of a different political life. In 2004, for the first time the people will directly choose their head of state - something people in Nusantara have not experienced since the time of Majapahit.

It is true that the republic has had five presidents. But in 1945 Sukarno was chosen by the members of the Preparatory Committee for National Independence. And until the time that he was toppled in 1966, Sukarno, "he who enthralled the people", actually sat there in his position without ever going through a general election.

There was an election in 1955 of course, the one and only election during Bung Karno's leadership, but it was only the people's representatives who were voted in. There has never been a vote for the head of state. For in 1958, a system of "Guided Democracy" was introduced, and the elected parliament was dismissed. Bung Karno took the position of "Great Leader of the Revolution". A few years later, he agreed to the political elite of the time making him "President-for-Life".

And from then on, there was never any thought about who would replace Sukarno. He was the one and only "pillar" of the Republic. As time went on, the entire system became increasingly centered on him. His praises were heard everywhere, similar to the cult-like leader worship we know from the RRC towards Mao. Newspapers not yet banned were made to publish writings of the Great Leader; poets and singers lauded him, and all kinds of "grand" titles were offered him.

In such a climate, the independence of various institutions is lost. Even the Chief Justice had the status of a mere minister, as just one of many assistants of The Great Leader. Those political parties that were allowed to exist seemed to have verve and to compete, but were eventually also dependent on the will of Bung Karno.

Even the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the dominant party of the time, displayed the same dependence-syndrome. Along with the military, even though ideologically in opposition to them, the PKI supported the system of "Guided Democracy". The PKI helped to strengthen the authoritative position of the ruler, especially through pressuring the government to disband parties and organizations it did not like. And so there was no fertile ground for socio-political power outside of the orbit of Bung Karno. When, towards the end of 1965, the news spread that Sukarno was ill (he was 64 at the time), Indonesia was tense. It all erupted in the event called "G-30-S" (the 30 September Movement) at the end of September, 1965.

People still debate what and who actually caused the murder of some generals considered "counter-revolutionary" and "anti-Bung Karno". But one thing is clear: the president himself was the only source of determining right and wrong.

In 1966, that president was overthrown. And then there was violence the like of which had never been seen in modern Indonesian history. After that late September, thousands upon thousands of members of the PKI, or people considered to be close to the party, were arrested or slaughtered. The party itself, after its leaders were murdered, had no way to survive. It had lost initiative. And meanwhile, a military group under the leadership of Suharto was the one that moved forward, with all kinds of new initiatives.

"Guided Democracy" was annulled. The military leadership that emerged at the time with the support of the politicians and civil technocrats, tried to form a new order. The "New Order" was born. But its system of power was actually still a variant of its predecessor?in many places even intensifying the repression of "Guided Democracy". The fear that spread following the cruelty over the years 1965-66 continued. In the name of "security", there was almost total control over people's lives.

Just as Bung Karno stood firm as "Great Leader of the Revolution", President Suharto in the "New Order" ended up steering the People's Consultative Assembly (DPR) and House of Representatives (MPR). He actively determined the design and leadership of the political parties. He suppressed the judiciary. He and his agencies maintained control over the press. Regular elections were introduced, but Suharto was not chosen directly by the people?and in the "election" by MPR, no competitors were allowed. There was also no limit on the number of presidential terms.

Inevitably, things went awry. The "New Order" which for 30 years was more effective in tidying up bureaucracy and making it more effective, was often considered to be a system that placed the State in a powerful position. But gradually, "The State" became just a bogie: frightening, but one was never sure it was really there. What was really there and wielding power was a Suharto. The system that started out as authoritarian-bureaucratic over time turned into a system like that of Bung Karno's "Guided Democracy: autocratic. And the praises towards the president himself also started to reflect this. He was given the title "Father of Development", and his picture appeared on all kinds of billboards.

But the more that power was centered in him, the more the Republic of Indonesia became synonymous with the house of Jalan Cendana. Suharto's children were more powerful than the ministers and generals. They easily manipulated government regulations for success in building up wealth and power.

So Suharto could not avoid becoming the single target when the economic crisis hit in 1997. The wave of student protests and pressure from various quarters finally made Suharto resign.

After Suharto's resignation, the presidents who followed tried to change the system. Particularly B.J. Habibie: free and secret elections were held; there was freedom to form political parties; the mass media no longer required licenses and therefore could no longer be closed down. But until Habibie was replaced by Abdurrahman Wahid, and Wahid was replaced by Megawati, the president was still chosen by the MPR which, as in "New Order" times, was the highest authority in determining the basic decisions for the life of the Republic.

But reformation continued, although without much fanfare. Under Amien Rais's leadership, the MPR revised various parts of the foundation of the political system. After experiencing the negative effects of the power of two presidents never replaced over more than half a century, the need was felt to limit the term of the head of state. It was thus decided that the president could serve a maximum of only two terms. The president could also be chosen from any group, not only from "native Indonesians", an ethnic categorization whose meaning was vague. And, no less important, the president was to be chosen directly by the people. In a historic move, the MPR stripped itself of its own power, and a democracy different to the "New Order" was born.

In this, one could say half in jest that Indonesia has entered the "post-Majapahit" era. This era arrived with the 21st century: the direct vote of the president by the people first needed a familiarization process. Indonesia extends over 13,000 islands and a population of 220 million, with infinite diversity. It is no easy matter for a candidate to be known to the voters.

The political parties are one of the go-betweens in this familiarization process. This is why someone who wants to become president needs this organization. But changing the system leads to a situation where direct campaigning becomes more important. This is something specifically 21st century, where campaigning takes on methods used in business, via the market.

And it is here that the presidential hopefuls strut their stuff, tout their views and agenda, and offer their best, so as to get chosen ? just like bath products or cooking spices are flashed to attract consumers. Advertisements become a medium impossible to ignore, and television, which is where Indonesians get 90 percent of their information, then becomes tremendously important.

The influence of television has not yet been precisely measured, but it is estimated that it has a huge effect on the loyalty of voters. The election of the DPR members last April showed that. The drastic decline of the PDI-P vote was a sign that the emotional tie to that party, because of both socio-economic and cultural background, has weakened. The increase in the vote for the Democrat Party, a new party that does not yet have the neat structure and organization of the Prosperous Justice Party, is thought to have been because of the positive image of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This image is certainly because of his presentation on television: his is a new face that appears to be unsullied by the political life of the Reformasi period with its hangover of confusion and disappointment.

Advertisements and television, like media in general, can create illusions. Advertisements are half-lies, and television exists precisely because of distance. They are both high cost. There is the possibility that dependence on this media will make citizens cast their vote because of illusions broadcast forcefully and repeatedly, not because of the quality of a candidate. This is what is generally agreed to have happened in the elections in Italy and Thailand, where the prime ministers are known as people who manipulate the mass media, even though they are not people usually thought of as "clean" or wise.

The high cost of campaigning with electronic media also means that candidates without the funds are shunted aside. This situation encourages the mobilization of huge sums of money for a political fight which should actually be far removed from considerations of wealth.

But there is also the view that the role of advertising and television can redirect funds that would otherwise be used for money politics, the euphemism for "buying votes". Once elections are secret, buying votes is no longer very effective. It then becomes more effective to spend money buying airtime.

And there is one thing that the campaign-on-television these days promises of new democratic life. On the screen, people can see that X, who may later govern Indonesia, is no great figure arriving with aura from on high.

Candidates are people who come and knock at our doors, offering something, including their face and their deeds. They are people who can be asked all kinds of things in talk shows, and can even be criticized in public. The interviewers, if they dare, can even ask about sources of private wealth, and how many wives the candidate has.
And in this way, the presidential throne is no longer shrouded in aura. The president will appear as an ordinary person, with ambition and power, but also with memory lapses and weaknesses. Brilliant or not, the president needs us. Even Megawati, who in 1999 seemed to be distant and who rarely spoke, is now beginning to realize how important it is to seek the approval of the street.

And gradually, leaders will no longer need divine inspiration and the people will become the arbiters. One hopes that Indonesia will fully comprehend this "post-Majapahit" wisdom: leaders are not perfect beings, but rather people who want to better themselves and their surroundings. As the Chinese proverb says: "A great leader is a curse to a country."

Goenawan Mohamad


7:53 pm
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