Pathways to a People’s President

Mar 05, 2012

If Indonesians are going to find a candidate to oppose the oligarchs, they need to start organising now.

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.