It is a big year for elections in Indonesia. On 5 April, the country will hold its second parliamentary elections since Suharto resigned in 1998. Three months later, for the first time Indonesians will directly elect their president. If no candidate gets an absolute majority, a final round of voting will take place in early September.
It should be a year for celebration. Back in 1998, when student protestors took to the streets, one of their central aims was a government freely elected by the people.
Yet the year began with a bad odour, at least for many politicians. In the first months of 2004 a new catch-phrase entered the country’s political vocabulary: politisi busuk, ‘rotten politicians’.
At the end of December 2003, a group of well-known intellectuals and activists gathered in Jakarta. They read out a statement declaring that they would not vote for any ‘candidate who is involved in corruption, has committed human rights crimes, damaged the environment, been violent toward women or misused drugs’.
The movement against rotten politicians soon took off. In other towns, activists formed their own groups. The national press was full of speculation about who would be named, and discussion of the rights and wrongs of the movement. Student groups held rowdy protests where they released their own lists.
Members of the major parties were not happy. Akbar Tanjung, the head of Golkar, called on his followers not to respond emotionally. He said it was obvious that the movement was designed to ‘discredit our party’.
His response was not surprising. Golkar, as well as being the former vehicle of the Suharto regime, is the best-run money machine in the country. Last year the respected Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid tried to become its presidential candidate. He eventually gave up in frustration, claiming that whenever he explained his vision to party members, they would just ask him ‘mana gizinya’ (literally: where’s the ‘nutrients’?), or ‘what’s in it for me’, meaning cash or other inducements.
Akbar was himself sentenced to a jail term in 2002 for involvement in a 40 billion rupiah corruption scandal. The money was used to help fund Golkar campaigning in 1999. When the rotten politicians movement began he was still free, awaiting the outcome of an appeal. Activists were outraged that he had the cheek to remain parliamentary speaker, let alone aspire to be his party’s presidential candidate.
Little wonder that Akbar himself was a favourite target of the protestors: one group of university students gave him a special ‘Corruptors Award’, after polling 3000 students in the Jakarta region. And when a majority of Supreme Court judges hearing his case eventually acquitted him in February it was widely assumed that he had bought his way to freedom.
But it wasn’t only Golkar leaders who disliked the anti-rotten politicians movement. Leaders of most parties are aware how disillusioned people are. A string of opinion polls have documented anger among ordinary Indonesians about corruption and other bad behavior by their representatives, including those who were elected on ‘reformasi’ platforms in 1999.
To mention just one cause of alienation: in elections of governors, mayors and bupati (district heads) around the country, ‘money politics’ has become the norm. Members of local assemblies routinely sell their votes to the highest bidders. Everyone knows it happens. Indeed, the process is so open that it has become common practice to ‘quarantine’ assembly members (usually in fancy hotels) for some days prior to voting, supposedly in the hope that this will change their behaviour.
Of course, not all politicians are corrupt. But such phenomena have led some in the Western media to depict Indonesia’s political elite as uniquely self-serving and venal. Outsiders shake their heads knowingly over the sorry spectacle of Indonesian politics and sigh that Indonesians might never achieve the holy grail of ‘good governance’.
But there is another way of looking at all this. Perhaps outsiders shouldn’t feel so self-satisfied. After all, isn’t disillusionment with politicians a defining characteristic of ‘advanced democracies’?
In the United States, such is the level of popular enthusiasm for the political system that less than 40 per cent of eligible adults bothered to cast a vote in the last congressional elections in 2000 (in Indonesia the figure in 1999 was about 85 per cent).
Big money dominating politics? Shady businessmen winning political office? Wealthy donors having undue influence over government policy? Such things are hardly the special preserve of Indonesia. They are often done in a less rough and tumble way in Australia, Europe, and the US, but this is partly because they are institutionalised into the very fabric of politics.
So is Indonesia heading back to Suhartoism? Perhaps the real problem is the model of democracy that is held up for countries like Indonesia to emulate. And maybe outsiders should be taking inspiration from those Indonesians who are honest enough to call their rotten politicians by name.
Edward Aspinall (edward.aspinall@arts. usyd.edu.au) teaches at the University of Sydney and is Chairperson of the IRIP Board.