Let's start now before it's too late

Let's start now before it's too late
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Indonesia is hailed as an outstanding success story of the modern world. Suharto's military dictatorship transformed into a vibrant democracy; it's a Muslim-majority country where the extremists are losing; where the economy booms and poverty falls. But for how long?

One of Indonesia's best-known statesmen worries that the country could face mass unrest in the future unless it improves its democratic structures.

The previous Indonesian minister for foreign affairs, now a member of the president's council of advisers, Hassan Wirajuda, said that the country of 240 million people needed "a second wave of democratic reforms".

Indonesia goes to the polls to elect a new president next year, with the first round of voting in July. The 10-year tenure of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former general universally known as SBY, will come to an end as he reaches his constitutional term limit.

His first term was widely regarded as outstanding; his second term is generally regarded a huge disappointment. Without Yusuf Kalla, the hard-driving, can-do vice-president he had by his side in the first term, SBY has been found to be timid and ineffectual.

"People don't feel urgency now, but when economic conditions are not so good, we will have a reaction on the street," Dr Wirajuda said.

"The danger is that if the government doesn't deal with it, there is dissatisfaction at a deeper level with the current state of democracy. People may take it in[to] their own hand[s].

"People now realise that this is not the final structure; it's not finished," he said in an interview in Sydney on Monday before attending the annual Indonesia-Australia Dialogue.

SBY himself promised a "second wave" of democratic reforms. Like many of his second-term promises and plans, however, they have come to naught.

"The announcement two years ago was not followed up because SBY became a lame duck too soon," Dr Wirajuda said. It's not that he sees any full regression to authoritarianism; democracy is too well entrenched.

"We've reached a point of no return - maybe 5 per cent want a return to authoritarian presidents, and 72 per cent of people want democracy, in a poll taken a few years ago." It is the terms of the democracy that worry him.

A leading scholar on Indonesia, the Australian National University's Greg Fealy, agrees that Dr Wirajuda is right to worry about the system. "There has been some democratic regression in the last couple of years, largely driven by the parties in the parliament.

''None has been especially harmful so far, but they are small chips. Overall it's going backwards, not forwards," he said.

Dr Fealy's chief concern is the parliament's relentless assaults on the ferocious national anti-corruption commission, known by its Indonesian acronym KPK.

It has proved fearless of the powerful and hugely popular with the people. It has declared two potential presidential candidates to be suspects, for instance, destroying their careers. And the parliamentarians hate it.

"Everyone feels vulnerable; everyone feels at risk," Dr Fealy said, "because they are all on the take, one way or another. Indonesian politics is expensive."

And even though SBY himself is seen as clean, his son and wife recently have come under suspicion, threatening his legacy.

The parliament so far has had only limited successes in curbing the KPK, but it is not about to relent.

What to do? Dr Wirajuda prescribes more public funding for election campaigns. "We need regular public contributions to political parties so there is less temptation to corruption," a proposal that Dr Fealy said was spot-on.

Dr Wirajuda also argues that the powers of the Parliament need to be crimped. "We have a presidential system, but our members of Parliament behave as if they are in a parliamentary system.

"There has been a flow of power from the executive to the parliament. We have constitutional confusion; there is competing legitimacy here. There are power struggles. It makes governing much more difficult."

He gives an example. SBY sensibly proposed curtailing the subsidy that the government pays to keep down the price of petrol.

It's tremendously costly, taking one-third of the national budget. But the Parliament refused and the proposal died. "This is a very fundamental issue we need to address," Dr Wirajuda said. "We need a strong president." Dr Fealy differs. It might be all right if you have SBY as president, or the current favourite to replace him, the vigorously reformist mayor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, for instance.

"But what happens if you get Prabowo as president?" Dr Fealy poses, referring to the former head of the Indonesian special forces and a son-in-law of the great dictator, Suharto. Prabowo is consistently one of the two top-rated candidates for the presidency.

"He has autocratic tendencies. At the moment we have a president who wouldn't chance his arm, but if Prabowo is president he may want very much to chance his muscular arm, and that would be a problem," Dr Fealy said.

If not a stronger presidency, then what? No serious reform seems likely in the remaining year-and-a-half of the SBY era, but Dr Wirajuda wants these issues to be on the table for debate, and he worries that they are not. Still, he counsels patience.

"We had to do a lot of things all at once - the country was virtually in collapse" in 1998, when the three-decade Suharto era ended amid economic crisis and popular unrest.

"We had to do economic development, look after democracy, the rule of law, human rights, corruption, all at once.

"What we have is good. I held a roundtable last year and a German professor told us that we shouldn't be so negative. What we have done in 10 years took Germany 600. But we are aware of our weaknesses."

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

Read more: https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/indonesias-democracy-at-a-crossroads-20130304-2fgst.html#ixzz2McaqZmhr

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