Posted by: mel | July 15, 2009

Election: The anthropology of Indonesian politics

Jakarta Post | Gigin Praginanto ,  Jakarta   |  Tue, 14 July 2009 |  Opinion

This month’s presidential election reaffirms that democracy has been functioning in Indonesia. But question “How far can Indonesia go with democracy?” keeps circulating among political scholars here and abroad.

Their concerns are based on the fact that Indonesia is a multi-ethnic archipelago of 230 million people, making whoever rules the country face a very wide and complicated span of control, particularly since Indonesia still lives with massive poverty.

In the past, the powerful regime of former president Soeharto touted that poverty had been exploited to stir up ethno-nationalism-based secessionist movements and religious radicalism.

He then introduced what he called Pancasila Democracy which placed the government in a position of supreme power, and other state institutions as its subordinates. Soeharto was also supported by many political scholars who believed an authoritarian government was the best choice to prevent Indonesia disintegrating.

But the fall of Soeharto in 1998, which turned Indonesia into the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the United States, proves iron-fisted governance benefited mostly the ruler.

Nothing has threatened Indonesia’s integrity, giving the impression that democracy is an adhesive power for the country. Democracy, as frequently voiced in political discourses, makes people love their country more since they are no longer marginalized as just political spectators.

Thanks to a Constitution Court verdict, this year’s legislative elections also signified a new phase of democracy. The new rule dismantled the exclusive rights of parties’ boards of executives in determining who would go to the House of Representatives. Under the new system, the victory of a candidate is determined by popular vote. Previously, such a vote only defined how many seats were won by a party.

However, the anthropological setting of Indonesia remains unchanged, where ethno-centrism still plays a very important role in politics and as a mean of survival.

Today, it doesn’t even need an academic observation to prove ethno-centrism is everywhere, from the presidential palace to village chief offices, from top corporations to street hawkers, from most expensive law offices to volunteer groups, from well-connected mafia to street criminals, etc.

In the meantime, there are many cases, mostly in regions, showing a faster mushrooming of ethno-centrism under democracy. Politicians from non-indigenous ethnic groups in regions have repeatedly complained they are being marginalized or even ousted from politics.

Indigenous politicians, they say, make use of overwhelming popular support to dominate local politics and bureaucracy.

Therefore it is not a mystery that ethnic identity and political careers seem to be merging and becoming two sides of the same coin in regional politics, and that the enthusiasm for the creation of ethnic-based new provinces and districts has increased steadily in the past 10 years.

Various anthropological studies have discovered that the growing ethno-nationalism is closely linked to ethnic rivalry and pride, feelings of being ignored by the government, and prolonged poverty.

The most recent striking case is the bloody ethnic clash between the indigenous Uighur and Han Chinese in Xinjiang province in China. It is no secret the clash was strongly inspired by growing ethno-nationalism that has created a Uighur secessionist movement amid the influx of Han from eastern China.

Indonesia itself has bitter experiences with ethno-nationalism-based separatist movements such as the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the South Maluku Republic (RMS) and the Free Papua Organization (OPM). In the meantime, ethno-centrism has repeatedly fuelled street brawls in many places, showing that Indonesia is still far from becoming a nation state.

In this context, Indonesia should learn from the case of the former Soviet Union, where, when combined with a dire economic crisis, strong ethno-centrism can turn into a lethal force.

The combination of the two factors prompted a decision by then USSR president Boris Yeltsin to dissolve his country, which was unstoppable, even by the powerful Soviet Union military forces. As a result, the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.

Therefore, amid the growing ethno-centrism in politics, Indonesia has no choice but to put added emphasis on sustainable economic growth and fair wealth redistribution, or risk being trapped in a deadly economic and social crisis as per the Soviet Union.

The termination of the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources that has begun triggering environmental and economic disasters in many places throughout the country is of course a must in this context.

However, most secessionist movements hardly pose serious threats to national integrity without intervention from the world’s major powers. It is recorded in history that deep involvement by the British, French and US governments led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia accuse the trio for masterminding the breakup of their countries.

Their countries, they say, were considered serious threats to the political and economic interests of Western powers.

By contrast, Indonesia is considered a friendly country by the major powers so far. Hence they are willing to provide the country with less expensive credit to keep its economy growing positively amid a dire global financial crisis.

Besides, Indonesia’s integrity is beneficial to them because dealing with one instead of many governments in a resource-rich and very large archipelago is much more efficient.

But what will happen to Indonesia if, one day, it is led by a president who resembles the anti-West Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, while its natural resources are exhausted and the country still plagued by massive poverty?

The “unfriendly” president must of course work hard to prevent ethno-centrism from rapidly developing into deadly secessionism.

The writer, a two-time recipient of the Nikkei Editor’s award, is a journalist and former head of Tempo Magazine’s International News Desk. He lives in Jakarta.


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