An Indonesian Throwback?

Each time Ganjar Pranowo returns home to Purworejo in Central Java, his school-teacher mother pinches his cheek and reminds him sternly: “Don’t be like Nazaruddin.” This is a warning that the 43-year-old legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) takes seriously.

As he told me recently, “There are only two things in life I’m afraid of. One is God, and the other is my parents.” After the scores of corruption scandals that have tarnished public life in Indonesia, meeting Ganjar is a welcomed break.

He’s a throwback to when being a politician meant having integrity, rather than the grubbiness of late. I know that I’ve often been critical of the House of Representatives (DPR), but men and women like Ganjar signal that all is not lost.

Confident and articulate, the Gadjah Mada University-educated Ganjar represents the very few lawmakers who haven’t been mired by the filth of public life. He has won praise for his work in the legislature’s investigation into the Bank Century scandals, as well as his cool response when he was called as a witness by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for a separate corruption scandal.

To be fair, though, Ganjar is well aware of the problems currently faced by many of his contemporaries. Indeed, part of the reason his work in the Bank Century case won public approbation stemmed from his empathic questioning of Vice President Boediono while other members of the team adopted a more combative approach.

In this, Ganjar represents the gentlemanliness of Javanese politics — though he claims that he stumbled into the profession by accident. As a student activist in 1992, he was originally a member of the New Order-era Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), but he fell out with its leader Suryadi when the latter was compromised by Suharto into expelling Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Ganjar then spent the next couple of years in the fringes, talking to and learning from political icons like Megawati and Soetardjo Soerjogoeritno while building up a human resources consulting business. These discussions not only sharpened his intellectual skills but convinced him that social justice, especially standing up for the marginalized, is crucial in politics, and that the best way to achieve it is through institutionalized party politics.

By early 2003, he was conducting advocacy training for cadres of the PDI-P, his current party, before finally being drafted to run as a candidate in the 2004 legislative elections. Ganjar narrowly lost, but as fate would have it, the candidate above him was selected to become an ambassador and Ganjar took his spot. He was then re-elected in 2009.

Ganjar quickly won a reputation as an effective legislator (at his insistence, the law on Indonesia’s legislative institutions was stretched from 100 articles to 408 to ensure greater transparency) and a principled politician (witness his vocal investigation into the alleged forging of Constitutional Court decrees by Democratic Party politicians). Having risen to become deputy chairman of the House’s Commission II, which oversees home affairs, he was also rumored to have been a candidate for inclusion into the Second United Indonesia Cabinet in October last year.

What I find particularly striking about Ganjar, however, is his moderation. He was extremely outspoken on the GKI Yasmin church issue, calling for Diani Budiarto, the mayor of Bogor, to be sacked for defying a Supreme Court order allowing the church to operate. As he also told me, “One of my principles in life is to avoid excess. This is because excess in anything may leave us vulnerable to making errors.”

Ganjar hence represents the best in Indonesian politics: self-effacing yet principled. Central to his integrity is a sense of “shame,” in that he’s aware of the negative impact any scandal would have not only on his family, but on the community at large, whose trust in public servants has steadily been eroded. He’s in touch with the mood on the ground and has spoken of the need for emotional empathy with voters. He understands the trust that’s been placed in him and knows what a “shame” it would be to betray it.

Ganjar is undoubtedly part of a generation of Indonesian politicians who came of age professionally during the Reformasi era. While it’s true that some have lost their way or have been exposed as lacking moral fiber, many more — like Ganjar and his colleagues Hidayat Nur Wahid, Budiman Sudjatmiko and Nurul Arifin — are still keeping the faith.

There has been a tendency to focus on the failing former group, and rightly so. But it is the courage and sacrifices of honest leaders that will carry Indonesia into the future.

(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia. His column also appears in the Jakarta Globe.)