Lingering problems: Democracy, leadership

Posted by Admin on Monday, 17 November 2003 | Opini

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Mon, 11/17/2003 9:57 AM

Sayidiman Suryohadiprojo, Former Governor, National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas), Jakarta

More and more people are wondering whether democracy is the right political system for Indonesia. Democratic reforms, started in 1958, do not seem to bring improvements to the multidimensional crisis facing the nation.

Problems have even increased in number as well as in seriousness. The economy is still vulnerable, the political situation is full of danger because of ethnic divisions and the misbehavior of the political elite, while domestic security has deteriorated.

Some people, especially at the grassroots level, are nostalgic for the much more stable and orderly situation of the Soeharto regime. People are inclined to blame democracy as the cause of all these evils, because of the excessive freedoms that developed when democratic reforms began. People today do not pay much attention to the common interest and have become very egoistical in only looking after their own benefits. Chaotic traffic conditions are a concrete and clear example of the current mentality of the people.

Older people will remember the situation in the 1950s when Indonesia was also in a state of disorder and stagnation because of the implementation of parliamentary democracy. The dominating role of political parties, fiercely competing for power, made it impossible for governments to remain in office long enough to put their policies in place. Cabinets came and went in a matter of months. The result was stagnation in many fields of life. So much so that the majority of the people were happy when president Sukarno declared the end of parliamentary democracy and a return to the 1945 Constitution, which would at least provide decisiveness and stability.

But democratic activists argue that it is wrong to blame democracy for the nation’s woes. They say that Indonesia is just at the start of the democratic process and it is therefore normal if there are excesses in the use of freedom. That will gradually improve with the maturation of the people and greater experience in the implementation of democracy.

It would be very wrong to think of terminating democracy because of its transitional weaknesses. That would return Indonesia to authoritarian, rule with all its grave consequences as demonstrated so clearly by the Sukarno and Soeharto regimes. The solution must be perseverance in the building of democracy and accepting the negative aspects as the price to pay for a better future.

However, the pessimists are asking how long the transition will last. They think that the longer it lasts the more the situation will deteriorate and chaos prevail. In that situation, it is not inconceivable that the Republic could collapse.

But since Indonesia established Pancasila as the state’s ideology, democracy must be one of the basic principles of life. The fact is that the fourth tenet of Pancasila is democracy. However, democracy does not stand alone and must go together with the four other tenets of Pancasila, namely belief in God, humanity, national unity and social justice. Therefore, democracy must be established not just for the sake of democracy or just to follow other nations, but to develop progress, national unity and a prosperous and spiritual life.

Looking at Singapore and Malaysia as nations that have developed very successfully, one can see the prominent role played by Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad as leaders who propelled their nations into progress and prosperity. Lee Kuan Yew always insists that for developing nations democracy can only bring progress if it is accompanied by discipline, which also means the rule of law. And Mahathir stated in his closing remarks before leaving his leadership position that people must not be obsessed with democracy, because an obsession with democracy could mean anarchy.

Many people in the West and democratic activists in developing countries like Indonesia do not recognize Singapore and Malaysia as democracies. They say that both countries are ruled by Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir as dictators. They entirely prefer to forget that both countries have democratic institutions that perform normally, including holding regular elections.

They also do not take into consideration that the majority of people in Singapore and Malaysia are satisfied with the state of democracy in their countries. But the West is ambivalent, because it also praises Singapore and Malaysia for their development into industrial nations. Dr. Mahathir used to say jokingly that he might be the first dictator in the world elected by a democratic process.

The building of democracy in Indonesia should take these examples into consideration. Another fact to consider is that in the West, the development of democracy was a gradual process. To safeguard a sound democratic process in developing nations like Indonesia, one cannot deny that democracy should be accompanied by leadership. The role of leadership will make democracy a significant and healthy part of life, fostering progress, national unity and prosperity.

The direct presidential election in 2004 will decide whether Indonesia can develop a national leadership that can be trusted to lead this process. That leadership must be able to establish the rule of law and social discipline. The economy, education and public health must be improved so that the majority of the people will feel and see that there are changes that benefit them. This will result in strong popular support that the leadership needs to make the necessary changes. The leadership must also have the strength and wisdom to end all the ethnic and religious divisions.

But democratic institutions should also be activated, including opposition in the legislature and a free and responsible press. Strong leadership and the rule of law should take care that the freedoms of democracy do not harm the continuity of government, because only a government that can last long enough will be able to deliver significant results.

The leadership should also groom future leaders who can take the place of the present leadership when the nation has reached a point of stable and progressive development. That requires from the present leadership the ability to know when they should step down and make way for their groomed successors. Leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad have given the example; it is unfortunate for Indonesia that Sukarno and Soeharto did not have the wisdom to do this.

The important question Indonesia is facing is whether the presidential election in 2004 will result in the rise of a national leadership that can do the necessary job. If it fails to do so, it is not impossible that very serious consequences will present themselves on Indonesia’s doorstep.

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