Indonesia's Electorate Smells Graft

Indonesia’s citizens are growing increasingly fed up with the crookedry of their politicians. As an indication of the failure of the ostensible commitment of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to reformasi, only 12 percent believe the current crop are doing a better job than those who were running the country under the former strongman Suharto.

Last weekend, the Indonesia Survey Circle, known by its Indonesian acronym LSI, published the results of a survey done three weeks ago among 1,200 respondents in all 33 Indonesian provinces on how they regard their politicians. A majority, 51 percent believe politicians are doing a poor or very poor job, with 25 percent not bothering to even comment.

As an editorial in The Jakarta’s Globe put it: “This underscores the fact, that for the vast majority of Indonesians, democracy has not delivered a better life”.

Why hasn’t it?

After Suharto, Indonesia changed in three meaningful ways: freedom of speech with a free press, the Internet, and the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission, known by its Indonesian-language acronym KPK. But democracy in general and the elected House of Representatives in particular have changed very little, if at all. In democratic Indonesia, candidates face first of all the financial risk of buying votes, a cost manageable only for the victors and the political parties that support them. Independents need not apply. Election rallies are attended by people collecting freely dispensed tee-shirts and boxes of fried rice, in return for which they are to vote for the politician in whose support the rally was held -- supposedly. Once the elected politician claims his seat in parliament, his concerns for his voters take a back seat. Now is the time for a return on his investment, for which he sells his vote in parliament, predictably to the highest bidder.

Within one year of the election of a new House of Representatives, a staggering number of members have disappeared into prison, or are under a KPK investigation to follow suit. Five years ago a journalist asked then Vice President Jusuf Kalla what should happen to the seat of a convicted member of parliament. The answer was that the man should keep his seat. He was implying that in Indonesian politics it is not considered abnormal for a member of parliament to serve time in prison.

Whether the Indonesian people agree is open for debate, but the LSI survey seems to indicate they don’t. An estimated 40 million Indonesians have daily access to the Internet. Although traditionally a country where very little could be kept a secret indefinitely, thanks to the Internet the gaffes of Indonesia’s politicians become part of the public domain overnight.

The KPK goes after corrupt politicians and civil servants, and digs up enough proof for the ministry of justice to proceed with prosecution. The KPK is now probably the only part of government regarded with respect by the people of Indonesia. Its biggest problems are limited manpower and prosecutors and courts of law that are both riddled with corruption and who refuse to follow up the KPK’s work with meaningful sentences.

Media pictures of the accused show, without exception, a total lack of embarrassment when , smiling broadly, they listen to the lenient verdicts delivered up by the courts. And something else has emerged: support for the KPK from Yudhoyono, who has just two more years left in his second and last term in office, is widely seen as going down.. The KPK’s adversaries on the other hand (read: everybody else with relevant political influence) are becoming more and more impatient to curb its powers.

Where will the rift lead to between Indonesia’s government and elected politicians on the one hand and the Indonesian people on the other? One local school of thought has it that nothing much will happen or change, because Indonesians’ outlook on life is embedded in a thousand-year-old social structure and hierarchy in which “knowing one’s place” plays a key role. The risk of social disruption, never mind upheaval, would practically be nil, or so the theory goes.

One day the economy will take a turn for the worse, the only question being when. It is not realistic to expect Indonesia’s politicians to change their ways any time soon. Getting elected doesn’t come cheap, and so far abuse of political position is the main source for a return on political investment. I am not so sure that the electorate of this young democracy will show the same tolerance for corrupt government once the economic tide turns.

(The author is a retired expatriate living in Jakarta.)