Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Pathways to a people’s president

Pathways to a people’s president
Published: Jan 23, 2012

Jeffrey A. Winters

   The prospects for 2014 don’t always inspire positive responses
Henri Ismail/Poros Photo

All modern democracies contain a strong element of oligarchy. But Indonesia represents a particularly extreme example of oligarchic dominance and distortion. This is partly because wealth, the defining power resource of oligarchs, is unusually concentrated in Indonesian society.

Some simple comparisons are illuminating. Focusing just on the net worth of the top 500 individuals or families in each case, the Senators of Rome were about 10,000 times richer than the average farmer or slave living in the Roman Empire. In the United States today, wealth is twice as concentrated – the top 500 Americans are about 20,000 times as wealthy as the average citizen. Singapore’s ratio is slightly higher than that of the U.S., at about 25,000 to 1. But in Indonesia, the top 500 oligarchs are about 600,000 times richer than the average Indonesian.

Money is one of the most versatile forms of power. Because society is so poorly organised and mobilised, its impact on Indonesian democracy has been overwhelming at all political levels since Suharto’s fall in 1998.

Media and party power

A small number of oligarchs now own the vast majority of Indonesia’s print, television, radio, and online media. Following a short burst of new media voices after 1998, big money moved aggressively to consolidate most sources of information and communication into fewer than a dozen hands. This process accelerated once big political players realised the media could make or break a candidate. Indonesia’s media outlets are free. But they are also thoroughly corporate and dominated by super-powerful oligarchs.

As with all the parties in Indonesia, the ideological spectrum for the media ranges from conservative to extreme right-wing. Most conflicts and debates among the media arise because of clashes between the oligarchic personalities or political groups that own them. The only other major variation across publications or broadcasts is whether they are stuffy and up-market (like Kompas and MetroTV) or churn out sensationalist, burlesque, or even superstitious fare for the wider market (of which there are too many examples to mention).

The next national elections are scheduled for 2014. Serious presidential contenders have no choice but to buy media access, which in some cases has meant buying television, radio stations, and newspapers outright.

But candidates must also buy parties. This happens in several ways. Some legislative candidates pay large sums to be featured prominently on party lists on election day (although candidates are increasingly on their own as they run more individual campaigns). At a higher level, those seeking to be party leaders must pay huge sums to delegates at national party congresses to outflank opponents for posts like party chairperson or secretary general.

And in some cases, oligarchs use their money-power (or that of their supporters if they are not yet big fish) to create new parties out of nothing. The idea is to make yourself party chair so that you can be catapulted to the presidency. The strategy worked for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The last phase of buying a party unfolds during the frenzied process of trying to cobble together enough representation in the DPR (People’s Representative Council), Indonesia’s parliament, to meet the threshold to be a presidential contender. In 2009 candidates for the presidency required the support of parties that held at least 20 per cent of DPR seats, or which had won 25 per cent of the vote.

There is plenty of political horse-trading regarding vice-presidential running mates and promises of cabinet posts. But such deals are never enough to make a successful alliance or coalition in Indonesia. A presidential hopeful must also be ready to pay millions of dollars in cash to his or her party allies. A portion of the pay-off flows to the other parties’ coffers, and some goes directly into the pockets of party leaders as a political closing fee for being the direct negotiators of the deals.

Extortion rules

If you want to win at this game – and you are not already an oligarch who commands a large personal fortune – you must get the financial backing of big Indonesian oligarchs who can supply the political cash. Sometimes this is done through persuasion. But usually it involves a strong element of extortion. Candidates and their backers threaten – implicitly or explicitly – to harass or punish oligarchs who refuse to provide financial support. Past or dormant legal cases can always be revived, and key business permits can suddenly be revoked or mysteriously require review. One of the most important political calculations an oligarch can make is deciding which candidates to support and how much cash to supply.

There is no shortage of illegality behind the major fortunes in Indonesia. This leaves oligarchs permanently vulnerable to being squeezed. Even if these oligarchs wanted to play strictly by the rules (and several of them probably do), this presumes that there are clear legal codes and procedures to follow in the first place.

Such is not the case in Indonesia. This is partly because of outdated and contradictory laws dating back to Dutch colonial times, and partly a reflection of greater regional autonomy after 1998, which has resulted in conflicting laws across multiple jurisdictions (nowhere is this more prevalent than in the regulations and mappings covering land status, boundaries, ownership, and use).

But an equally important reason why there is so much legal disarray is that legal uncertainty plays a vital role in the constant game of extortion that redistributes wealth among Indonesia’s oligarchs and elites. The biggest game in town is not energetic wealth creation via industry and services, but aggressive wealth redistribution among the powerful after it has been extracted from the country’s declining natural resource endowments.

Oligarchs and politicians (who are often one and the same if they are not part of the country’s Chinese minority) must master this game of money, elections, office, law, and extortion if they are to win (or just survive) in the country’s challenging political economy.

This is not a transient aspect of Indonesian politics that is likely to fade as the ‘quality of democracy’ improves in the electoral cycles that lie ahead. Rather, it is a defining characteristic of how oligarchy and democracy are blended in Indonesia. And however much those playing the game at the top may complain about the distortions all of this causes for the nation’s politics, or how disgusted they feel personally to be taking part, these relationships between money and politics in the system are deep and self-regenerating.

If the nexus between money-power and democracy is to be challenged or broken, the critical push will have to come from power bases external to this corrupt form of criminal democracy.

Weak civil society

The problem of oligarchy in Indonesia is not just a reflection of the country’s extreme material inequality, which allows some individuals to profoundly shape political outcomes in ways that have nothing to do with voting on election day. It is compounded by the extreme weaknesses of Indonesia’s civil society.

In one sense, civil society in Indonesia is active and robust. Citizens enjoy wide freedoms of assembly and expression, and there is a proliferation of organisations, causes, seminars, workshops, and publications. But for reasons of history and culture, civil society in Indonesia is also badly fragmented, poorly organised, and provides no effective counter-balance to the captive grip oligarchs have on how democracy functions. It’s not just that the organised left is feeble, but so too are virtually all forms of liberal and even middle class political organisation that are free of the baneful influence of money and the oligarchs.

Civil society in Indonesia is also badly fragmented, poorly organised, and provides no effective counter-balance to the captive grip oligarchs have on how democracy functions

A good illustration of this is the absence of a strong ‘civil society candidate’ for the presidency. There is direct voting for presidential candidates in Indonesia. Any individual is eligible to be a candidate as long as he or she is backed by a sufficient threshold of support in the parliament.

This rule has resulted in party chairs being the exclusive candidates on the ballot since direct elections were instituted in 2004. But there is no formal requirement that a presidential candidate be a party leader, nor that he or she be an oligarch or be able to squeeze other oligarchs to rise to the top.

Oligarchic dominance has constrained Indonesian democracy and contributed to a pattern of declining voter participation since 1999. All Indonesian presidents since the democratic transition have been mediocre or worse, and failed to build a legal system that reliably limits the system’s most powerful actors. Meanwhile, the prospects on the horizon for 2014 inspire sentiments ranging from boredom to dismay.

Given the bleak presidential slate for 2014, why are there no alternative choices? The grip of oligarchs on the system is important. But it is not the whole story.

Why no alternative?

One reason is that potentially strong voices and forces in civil society have failed to produce an alternative. Indonesia has a vibrant array of progressive and forward-looking NGOs, associations, universities, student groups, and religious bodies. It has many thousands of hard-working and skilled activists toiling in the areas or law, human rights, anti-corruption, women’s issues, children, farmers, labor, the environment, the poor. It would go too far to construe these actors as left-wing. But they stand in sharp contrast to the conservative groups running the country and setting the national agenda.

The one thing nearly all of these progressive groups and organisations have in common is that they are unenthusiastic (even strongly negative) about the candidates for top office the oligarchic system is currently producing. And yet, they have all failed to take the one necessary next step for change – which is to forge an alliance that can unite around an alternative ‘civil society’ candidate.

Who might this be and what is a feasible scenario for how such a candidate could actually win? There are several respectable, honorable, visionary, and courageous ‘people’s candidates’ who are on the periphery of the Indonesian political stage, but who currently have no chance of being on the ballot in 2014. This is because they are neither oligarchs nor party elites.

Some obvious names that have circulated are Anies Baswedan, Mahfud MD, Rizal Ramli, Sri Mulyani, and even artist-activist Ratna Sarumpaet. Anies Baswedan is a moderate Muslim intellectual, rector of Paramadina University, and an important voice for religious tolerance in an increasingly intolerant Indonesia. He has never been in government. Rizal Ramli was jailed as a student activist under Suharto, remained sharply critical after he was released, and is one of the most important economic thinkers on the Indonesian stage. He served in the cabinet of Indonesia’s second post-Suharto president, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur).

Mahfud MD is a protege of Gus Dur who has distinguished himself as the head of the Constitutional Court. Although a leading technocrat in the IMF-World Bank tradition, Sri Mulyani has built up a significant elite following for her commitment to the rule of law and her efforts to fight corruption. Ratna Sarumpaet is distinguished for writing and directing the bravest and most controversial plays Indonesians witnessed from the 1980s forward, taking on subjects ranging from the torture and murder of labor activists, to the struggle in Aceh, to the political stigma of persons linked to the Indonesian Communist Party and the failed 1965 putsch.

All of these individuals are intelligent, skilled, and experienced. Three have real American Ph.Ds. They are national figures with strong reputations for their commitment to the same things civil society organisations fight for – like human rights, tolerance and pluralism, the environment, the rule of law, attacking corruption, opposing violence in Aceh and Papua, and addressing the conditions faced by ordinary Indonesians.

None of these figures is tainted by membership in or association with the elements in Indonesia that have perpetrated the most harm on society in recent decades (such as the armed forces, the police, intelligence agencies, Golkar, the Suharto family, or extremist religious groups). And none has gotten rich at the expense of the Indonesian people or by stealing the nation’s resources.

A pathway to the presidency

How might one or two of these non-party figures become a presidential packet and even win a direct election? There are many potential pathways, let me sketch out one way it might unfold.

First, let’s imagine that the disappointed and apathetic components of civil society could mobilise quickly and hold a ‘People’s Congress’, or some similar event. This congress could have one simple agenda item: to form a broad social coalition, based on compromise and shared goals, that supports one alternative presidential packet. A single candidate for president, and a single running mate for vice-president. They would be declared the People’s Candidates. To win this backing, each candidate would present their ‘People’s Agenda’ to the congress, debate with each other, and respond to comments and questions from the delegates. And then the delegates would vote until they reached a winning duet.

Although the media are owned by oligarchs and focus exclusively on mainstream candidates, they could be shamed into giving the congress full coverage. But alternative media outlets like facebook and twitter could also be used extensively. A People’s Congress would give the presidential packet much higher visibility and legitimacy.

This would set in motion the second step, which is having these candidates show up as credible alternatives in various political polls by 2013. Such polls are 80 per cent a matter of face-name recognition (especially when there are still many candidates), and 20 per cent political identity or sentiment. The challenge for leaders in civil society after leaving the congress would be to go back to their thousands of organisations and actively promote the People’s Candidates. They would not have to do as partisans. Indeed, many NGOs are explicitly forbidden to endorse political parties and candidates. They could attend the congress and follow up on its results as private members of civil society.

What about party backing? After all, this is the key to becoming a valid candidate on the ballot according to Electoral Commission rules. Here the opening is far greater than most imagine. Although the thresholds of 20 per cent of DPR seats or 25 per cent of the national vote will be higher in 2014, there will still be smaller parties searching for a way to have an impact.

The elections of 2004 and 2009 show that the smaller parties are incapable of spontaneously agreeing on an alternative candidate (and they are offered cash and other political crumbs by the major parties at the last moment to ensure they fragment rather than unite). A very different dynamic could unfold if a People’s Candidate were available in advance for them to support jointly.

Also, there could be several big wildcards up for grabs in 2014. PDI-P (Indonesia Democracy Party- Struggle), led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, and PKB (National Awakening Party), the party founded by former president, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, both now have serious candidate vacuums. The media magnate Suryo Paloh and his NasDem party could make a surprising move to block Golkar or Partai Demokrat.

It is unlikely that Megawati wants to endure the indignity of a third consecutive rejection from the voters. And her daughter, Puan Maharani, whose only qualification is genetic, has weak support inside PDI-P and even less across society. PDI-P desperately needs a popular candidate to regain its momentum as the nationalist party closest to the average Indonesian.

Escaping mediocrity

A chorus of lament can be heard across Indonesia about the candidates that are emerging for 2014. Intellectuals are disgusted. Average citizens have tuned out the nonsense. Students swing from anger to apathy. One burned himself to death in front of the Presidential Palace at the end of 2011. Even the business community is unenthusiastic about the choices on the horizon, and some oligarchs privately wish leaders could emerge who would make major breakthroughs on things like corruption and the rule of law.

The challenge for activists in civil society is to convert this groundswell of criticism, disappointment, and apathy into alternatives, energy, and hope. The indications are strong that the Indonesian people are hungry for new leadership and would embrace it if given a realistic alternative.

The scenario sketched above is just one pathway by which such an alternative might emerge. But if organising started immediately, a People’s Congress could be achieved before the end of 2012. This is still early enough for a People’s Candidate to gain momentum in 2013 and pose a serious challenge for the presidency in 2014. Pulling this off would represent a major challenge – but also a major breakthrough – for progressive forces.

Jeffrey A. Winters (winters@northwestern.edu) researches and teaches at the Department of Politics, Northwestern University, Chicago.

Inside Indonesia 107: Jan-Mar 2012

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