It’s a cult of personality among candidates who have no personality

Tempo Magazine – February 17-23, 2009

Election fever mounts as candidates discuss strategic alliances and running mates, but academic and Indonesia expert Max Lane says this may be an election characterized by disappointment – for candidates and constituents alike.

Back-packing through Indonesia as a university student in the late 1960s, Lane was intrigued by a country with a rich political history, though he says you may not see much of that richness today.

A Visiting Fellow with the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore, Lane sat down with Tempo, amidst his own research and interviews, to share his thoughts on the state of Indonesian politics today. Excerpts of the interview:

You launched a book last year, Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto, how is it going?

The English edition was launched in June last year, the Indonesian edition in 2007. It’s going very well, I think we might have to reprint soon and it’s only been out seven months.

We’re coming into the national elections and accountability of politicians has always been seen as a problem. Can you comment on that?

I think in many respects, the formal structures, the rules and procedures that have been set out – 60-70 percent of them are on the right track for a better system. Although, rules and procedures still advantage political parties with no members, but a lot of money. And they disadvantage parties that have members, but no money.

There are 44 parties in the upcoming election. On the whole, this system has created a situation where in reality none of these parties are particularly popular. I think that’s why if you watch television at the moment, or the talk shows, or read the commentaries, the most commonly discussed phenomenon in relation to the election is golput. And it’s not because people don’t want to vote. In 1999, the voter turnout was 93 percent. If you do the sums, the most popular party in the last election was Golkar with 22 percent. But that’s 22 percent of 60 percent, because only 60 percent of the people voted. Which is what, 15 percent? You’ve got 15 percent of the entire population supporting the most ‘popular’ party. And I think in this election, in every case, the general trend will be a further drop in voter turnout.

And how has this lack of voter confidence and enthusiasm come about?

There are two issues; one is the long-term deep and fundamental impact of not having any real politics for 30 years, just controlled situations. When Suharto left there was nothing there. You’re starting from scratch in terms of genuine political activism on a national scale. But the second is the rules and procedures, because the parties in the current parliament passed laws that made it almost impossible for any new party without money to be registered.

You have to have an office everywhere you claim to have a branch, you have to have offices across the archipelago. And a lot of genuine parties starting up from a grass-roots base have active members, but they can’t set up 200 offices throughout the country. But if you have no members and a lot of money, you can just buy some members and some offices for show.

You say it’s a structural problem, that’s why truly popular parties can’t participate. Is there a solution?

All you really need to do is go back to the 1999 electoral law, the first elections after Suharto. If you had that electoral law, I’m sure you would have three or four parties participating in the elections that would be qualitatively different to the parties you have now. Everybody knows the current parties are in it for the monetary gain of being able to participate in the system.

And every one comments, if you read the news reports on political parties in Indonesia in the context of the elections, there’s no discussion of the state of the economy and policies, there’s no discussion of the education system and policies – 99 percent of all political discussion now is who will be who’s vice-presidential candidate. It’s all about what coalitions are needed to win, there’s nothing about actual policies. If the 1999 election laws had been in place, I can think of three parties, all of which were small, but had serious [voter] bases, they would be participating in the elections now – and that would produce a different mood, a different atmosphere. A change in electoral law wouldn’t guarantee big change overnight, but it would open up the system more. Right now, if you don’t have money, forget it.

Indonesia seems to have a ‘cult’ of personality around its leaders, why do you think this is?

It’s a cult of personality among candidates who have no personality. If you look, 80 percent of posters are about parties with no political slogan, and the others are a picture of someone with slogans like “vote for the creative one”, “we are for the people”; completely abstract and meaningless slogans.

There was an interesting editorial in Kompas recently about narcissism. Narcissism in the Indonesian political elite, where everyone’s happy having their photo on display. It’s all centred on personality, even though none of these people have any personal following. It’s a reflection of the vacuum. Why is there a vacuum? Because all of the parties come out of the same political and social elite, and they’re all satisfied with the current policy framework.

There has been a lot of talk around the rise of conservative Islam in politics. Do you think parties like PKS will have a large following in this election?

My half-guess is that their following will remain about the same as it is now. They (PKS) lost a lot of support when they came out with political advertising promoting Suharto. But, I think the other thing you have to note about the Islamic parties is that in the provincial elections they haven’t been doing very well. And secondly, the general trend is for a situation in the past where there are two big Islamic parties. Masyumi, which doesn’t exist anymore and MUI, which still exists, but as a social-religious organization. These two, which controlled 30-35 percent of the population between them – went from two very strong parties to 10 or 15 parties fighting among themselves. So, I think the trend of Islam going up is actually an illusion. But, you have to ask another question, if it’s not really going up, why do people talk about it so much? I think in terms of outlook, there’s nothing else. You don’t have the old-style Suharto developmentalism, because there’s no development. You have nothing on the Left, you have a small part of the political spectrum represented. [PKS] has a, kind of clear, world view associated with its politics, everyone else is just a personality. At least political Islam has some direction.

What does Megawati stand for? What’s SBY’s world view? On his party placards it says ‘Nationalist Religist’. What does that mean? But, the Islamic ones, especially PKS, even though they won’t admit it, are directed by Islamic Shari’a law. The West Java Governor, a PKS member, just banned a traditional West Javanese dance with a slight erotic character to it. They say their long-term direction is not Islamic law, but as soon as they get a bit of power, we can see what kind of regulations they bring in.

Indonesia has been lauded as a success for democracy in the past, but in light of the recent violence in Sumatra, do you think this election could be violent?

There’s a lot of money at stake for those participating. A lot of people invest a lot of money in campaigning in the hope that if they win, in a very unclear manner, the money will return. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get tensions here and there with different scuffles. But I think the general attitude among society at large will be lack of interest.

You were an admirer of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s work, translating many of his texts. You also began long-running journal Inside Indonesia. What, or who, do you think are the inspiring and challenging voices coming out of Indonesia today?

I don’t know that I would identify any one commentator, but I think the Indonesian media is very interesting to read. To be honest I think it is 5,000 or 10,000 percent more interesting to read than the Australian media, which has almost nothing in it. First of all, in Indonesia you have so many different newspapers, there’s a lot of choice. And also because Indonesia has come out of a period of struggle against dictatorship, many journalists have a background as activists. Or if they weren’t activists themselves, they went to university or they were formed in this period of struggle and ferment. So that brings a different kind of attitude to journalism, an experience that a lot of people going through journalism courses in Australian universities would not have. Thirdly, you have a much bigger involvement of academics, writers, literary people writing in the media, than you do in Australia. But I think as time goes on, from the time when university students were active en masse, that feeling will deteriorate; these media organizations are owned by big business. Up until six months ago, I thought television here was quite good, but that has deteriorated too. People still watch it; they just shake their heads and walk away.

You say student activism influenced today’s media and brought about huge change in the past. Where is it today?

I don’t think it’s died off. It’s just become atomized, fragmented. Before 1998, everyone had a common target, easy to identify: overthrow Suharto. Now Suharto’s gone, some things have improved, especially in politics. The fear factor has gone; you don’t have to be worried about arrest or censorship. And while some romanticize the time, most people don’t want to go back to being afraid. But, there’s still enormous problems. Campaigning to solve these problems is harder than just concentrating on overthrowing one person. There are lots of groups and movements in provinces and cities, but I’m not sure how long it will take to go from atoms, to fragments, to something more substantial – because the main parties want to keep them out. I’m sure the process will continue, but it will be slow, there will need to be a crisis, a crack or jolt to speed it up.

Are you optimistic about this young democracy?

I am optimistic, but I think it’s going to be quite a gruelling process. It’s basically going to require all sorts of groups, which are there but are currently outside the party system, to find a way to force themselves into that realm. Women’s groups, student groups, unions – there’s a huge amount of activity, but it’s not mobilized into the arena where people are struggling for power.

You have no charismatic figures in parliament. Megawati never says anything, never appears on television. SBY keeps his hair nice and neatly parted. The fourth-largest country in the world, with many problems and a very rich political history… but at the moment, there’s really nothing.

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