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The Unavoidable Machiavellianism in Indonesia’s Politics

Tasa Nugraza Barley
Tasa Nugraza Barley
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The Unavoidable Machiavellianism in Indonesia’s Politics
Niccolo Machiavelli was a politician, diplomat and historian during Italy’s glorious cultural era known as the Renaissance. He was one of the founders of modern political science, whose works have helped shape today’s politics. For centuries, his thoughts and theories have been widely discussed and used by the world’s greatest leaders and politicians. Indonesia is no exception. Although many Indonesian politicians may not have heard of his name, the chances are they have applied his theories in the political arena without even knowing it. Of all his works, it was Machiavelli’s book called The Prince that made him one of the most influential political theorists in the world’s history, although some experts like to label him as a realist instead. The book is a manual about how to get power and, most importantly, how to stay in power. It has been studied or followed by successful leaders and dictators alike, from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to American President Bill Clinton. The book was a controversial one when it was officially published in 1532, five years after the author’s death. And it is still controversial now. “It is much safer to be feared than loved” or “One must know how to colour one’s actions and be a great liar and deceiver” are the kinds of quotations from the book that shocked many of its early readers. The Catholic Church once banned the book, arguing that it promoted anti-Christian beliefs. Meanwhile Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell branded The Prince as “a handbook for gangsters.” The basic premise of the book is that to be a successful leader or a successful politician, you cannot be committed to honesty and virtue. One should keep in mind that Machiavelli suggested this from a realism point of view and not from an idealistic ideology perspective, as expected by the general society. In short, Machiavelli argued that if you want to do good you cannot be good, or at least not 100 percent. Looking at the Indonesia’s politics, it seems that things cannot get worse. Our politicians are devious and they use politics as a means to gain power, simply by making empty promises during an election campaign. The public hope that the downfall of Suharto’s New Order regime, which led to the emergence of democracy, could bring us a better condition turned out to be false. Now we have come to realization that democracy has become a legitimate tool for bad people to gain power. Many anti-corruption activists and politicians alike have cried out their frustration over the rampant use of money and deceitful tactics during this year’s elections. Some even believe that they have seen the worst money politics in the history of Indonesia’s democracy. Although a further investigation is needed to prove this allegation, but the general public seems to agree that the condition of our politics is indeed worsening. A politician is not much different from a salesman, really. Similar to a salesman who will tell you that he has the best product in the world, a politician will also tell you that he knows ways to improve the condition of the country, including, of course, the condition of your welfare. But unlike a product that you can easily return, resell or decide not to buy it again in a relatively short period of time, you, or Indonesian voters in this sense, have to wait five years to punish politicians who don’t keep their promises. It is too long that people will eventually forget during the process of waiting. Having that in their minds, politicians have a pretty simple strategy: Pretend to be sincerely nice during the election, with all the sweet words and promises, and simply use their political positions to enrich themselves. Such a thoughtless political stance is in tune with what The Prince conveys in its chapter 18, which is considered the most controversial part of the book. In this chapter Machiavelli wrote that while a leader is praised for keeping his word, he can only gain success by being crafty and tricky. Therefore, a leader should keep his word only when it is favorable to him, but it is important that he builds an illusion to the general public that he is indeed the man who keeps his word. Due to his bold and unconventional views on politics and the society, for so long Machiavelli’s name has been linked to many negative connotations. If you look up for the word “Machiavellianism” in an English dictionary, it will be likely defined as a personality of cunning and deception. But to Machiavelli’s supporters, The Prince has actually provided a significant contribution to mankind as it helps both leaders and ordinary people see the political arena as it is and not as it should be. Knowing this, what we can probably do is to support politicians with proven track records of choosing the less bad actions in order to achieve the common good. As Machiavelli suggested, politicians cannot avoid themselves from being treacherous since there are never easy choices in politics. It is acceptable as long as common good is materialized. Thus in my opinion, the role of public participation and media becomes highly crucial to supervise the course of politics of a nation, despite the fact that we all agree that politics is a dirty world. Whether or not The Prince is a book of evil, or whether or not Machiavellianism is a destructive political ideology, one thing is clear though, as explained by award-winning writer James Johnson, that it has unarguably sparked the very critical questions about politics and morality over the last 500 years by revealing how the human society really works. In the end, I myself think that one cannot blame the gun for its capacity to kill and perform other vicious actions. It is the man behind the gun who holds the full responsibility.
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