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Moral crisis and the political party

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Indonesian politics is in a severe state of moral crisis, says academic Arbi Sanit. A renewed role for political parties is the answer. INSIDE INDONESIA spoke with him by telephone.

You have long been known in Indonesia for your concern about democratisation. You often speak about the need to revitalise the political parties. Why should parties be so important? Isn't it possible to be democratic without parties?

We have to make the distinction between the state and society. Political parties are formed by society. They have to represent the interests and values of society within national political life. Without parties it is difficult to defend the interests of society.

However, if the bureaucracy or the military take over the parties, naturally they will side much more with the state. They will find it difficult to be objective about society.

Our experience bears this out. The military always say they have an intimate relationship with the people, 'like a fish in water'. But it is very rare for the military to defend the interests of Indonesian society.

For example in the recent land conflicts in East Java, the military tended to side with the government, or even with big business, and not with the little people. When I did research in East Java last year I found that people thought of the government and the military as the other side, no longer a side that defends their interests. That is why there is this hope in political parties.

But many people think parties will cause instability.

Of course that has happened in the past. But now we can look at Golkar as a political party and see that it has become a stabilising factor. Possibly Golkar's methods do not wholly take the form of peoples' power. Rather, Golkar resembles popular force that has been coopted by the government through the military and the bureaucracy.

So would you include Golkar as a genuine political party? And the PPP and PDI?

Yes they are. I'm not speaking as a politician here, but as an observer. A political party is a social organisation whose task is to represent the interests of society within political life.

Do you feel these existing parties are capable of doing that?

At the moment, no. But one day when the military have handed over power to Golkar... However, that requires a lot of preparation. The parties need to do a complete internal overhaul.

They have an enormous problem with leadership. They have very little of it, because all the sources of leadership have been bureaucratised. All the sources of informal leadership within Indonesian society in recent years have been domesticated. They have been forced by the government to become a part of the power structure. That is why PPP and PDI have so much difficulty demonstrating leadership.

But the potential is still there and getting bigger. The middle classes are growing and becoming a new source of leadership in Indonesia today. The question remains how PPP and PDI are going to make a more directed programme. And the government must also show an openness so it does not monopolise these sources of leadership.

Arbi Sanit teaches politics at Jakarta's distinguished University of Indonesia. He recently agreed to become an advisor to KIPP, the Independent Election Monitoring Committee chaired by Goenawan Mohamad. KIPP is inspired by election watchdogs in other countries - such as Pollwatch of Thailand and Namfrell of the Philippines. It is finding widespread popular support, particularly among students. However, after initially prevaricating, the government has condemned it. A number of pro-government organisations to oppose KIPP have appeared, and some KIPP supporters have experienced violence.

When, last March, you made yourself available to the advisory board of KIPP, you said: 'This is the right moment.' What is so special about this moment?

There is a moral crisis in Indonesian politics today. It is now reaching its peak. The crisis can be seen in various types of corruption. The report from Hong Kong ranking Indonesia as the third most corrupt in Asia only looked at a portion of the evidence, namely that government officials demand money from people in business. In reality there are other forms - such as officials taking money from the state. Secretary of State Mr Murdiono says this is only about Rp 2 billion (AU$ 1 million).

A much more common form of corruption again is political corruption, intimidation. It is done quietly. People are too afraid to speak about it. But it is very common. The newspapers suffer from it. Political activists suffer from it. Those who have been detained speak about how strong this intimidation is - as far as holding a pistol to the head. I have heard this from them directly.

Collusion between officials and business is also very common. For example the scandal at the High Court right now (in which High Court judge Adi Andojo Soetjipto accuses his fellow judges of corruption). And it is not limited to the High Court. The entire bureaucracy is guilty of it. Another example is the Timor motor car (in which Tommy Suharto obtained special tax breaks for a Korean car he wants to build). That is collusion too.

All this is amoral behaviour in politics. It is not rational. All of it conflicts with political morality.

So it is not the 1997 elections that makes this moment special, but the moral crisis of which you speak?

Yes, it is this crisis, not the elections. The important thing is that we come to these elections in a state of high moral crisis. So when they came along and asked me to join KIPP, I didn't hesitate to join them.

Some people speak sceptically about the morality in politics KIPP promotes. Armed Forces Commander Gen. Feisal Tanjung said radical groups veil themselves in 'moralistic-utopian' clothes. Academic Affan Gafar said the 'moralist' groups are led by people who once enjoyed the privileges of the New Order (a reference to Goenawan Mohamad, former editor of the banned magazine Tempo). What really is the role of morality in politics?

Ideally, morality ought to be in balance with interests. I think our behaviour is determined by two sources - firstly by values, secondly by interests. Interests have to do with things like position and material riches. Values are connected with morality, with ideals, legitimation, and these more noble things.

For the last 30 years of Indonesia's New Order we have neglected moral factors. Indonesian politics are so pragmatic. They have become secular. Values and ideology have been neglected in political life. Our political life has been dominated by pragmatism, by the economy, while other things have been put in second place.

Society feels badly done by in this imbalance between interests and moral values. I think society is aware of this disparity and is starting to move, starting to rise up. People want to restore political values. Political behaviour must take more account of the values that live in society.

KIPP is a movement based on morality, but one that has political implications, even though it does not intend to gain power. It wants to colour power with morality. That is why KIPP is more a moralistic movement.

You once said 2003 will be the year when a big effort should be made to return power to the parties. Why did you name this year?

I said that because it is so closely related to the succession. The presidential succession is highly dependent on the health of the president. Till 2003 is the maximum that the president can still function well and remain healthy. If he is not healthy, a succession will take place.

In the scenario we foresee from here, there is a tendency to think the succession will not go smoothly. Till now there is no sign that a successor is being groomed as happened in Singapore for example. So it looks as if there will be a conflict between the leaders at the moment of succession.

In that conflict there are two possibilities. One is that it will be violent. This could happen if the competing forces are not equal. The stronger acts harshly against the weaker side, and this will result in a system that, if possible, is even more authoritarian than the one we have now.

However, this possibility is not very great. Because the international situation, economic competitiveness, national security, political stability, relations with ASEAN - all these things will be disturbed if there is political violence as a result of such competition.

Instead, I tend to think the conflict will take place among forces that are more evenly balanced. In this situation of balance, there is an opportunity for the people to participate. Each of the competing forces will seek popular support. They will avoid bloodshed and fighting. If one side does begin to use violence, the other will also use violence and, since they are equal in strength, the result would be general destruction. No, they would rather cooperate.

This cooperation, if it takes place in 2003, will make the parties a very important arena - whether it be Golkar, PDI or PPP. Of course on one condition. They must undergo a more rapid transition, to catch the ongoing political trends. They must be able to attract the rising forces in society and allow them to play a bigger role.

Arbi Sanit has taught at UI since 1969. He is 57 and comes from West Sumatra. His comments on political developments are often sought by the Indonesian media.

Inside Indonesia 47: Jul-Sep 1996

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