Indonesia – (Dead) Presidents and Political Parties

The electoral race is heating up with the countdown to the legislative elections in April 2014 and the presidential elections in July. Almost on cue, we see political swipes taken against the standing president – President Yudhoyono and his once-popular Democratic Party – as well as the intensifying efforts of political parties to build momentum. The exercise has witnessed an increasing number of political parties seizing on legacies of past, dead presidents, namely, President Suharto, President Sukarno, and President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. In the case of President Gus Dur Wahid – a moderate Muslim strongly opposed to religious intolerance – several Islamic parties are vying to lay claims to preserving and continuing the president’s ideals. Are political parties harking back to the past of personalistic politics rather than constructing competitive, cogent political agenda based on voters’ interests? Does this speak to a trend of diminution of political parties? Evidence suggests that the answers are: no, and no.

In the first instance, there are indications that Indonesian political parties have worked to develop platforms for competitive election – albeit with varying success – with several incorporating an anti-corruption stance on their agenda. For instance, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) – the largest Islamic Party in Indonesia – has tried to expand beyond religion to become the “clean” party, i.e., one untainted by corruption, reflecting the effort to move beyond a religious platform and probably the awareness that religion was no longer sufficient to attract Indonesia’s popular vote. Unfortunately for the party, the efforts were cut short by corruption charges and sex and bribery scandals that hit the highest levels of the party. Similarly, President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party was elected on a platform of anticorruption, social justice, and economic performance and the party’s recent escalated decline is due not only to the battery of corruption charges and intraparty feuds but also a lack of policy performance. The rise of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in the polls beyond the popularity of its chair, Megawati Sokarnoputi, may also be considered as moving beyond personalities. Of course, one may argue that the new-found popularity of the PDI-P may not be due to a more robust party agenda but, rather, the popularity of Jakarta Governonr Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. There’s certainly something to that: for instance, news reports point out that Jokowi’s popularity has led parties other than the PDI-P to feature him in their political ads. But, it is also true that Jokowi’s popularity rests largely on: (a) his record of successful implementation of policy platforms; and (b) Jokowi’s “man-of-the-people” that has engaged young and old voters. More importantly, they represent significant departures from personalistic-cult politics.

These circumstances point to a hopeful assessment on the question in the second instance: the diminution of political parties in Indonesia may be greatly exaggerated. What we are witnessing is the stops and starts in the process of institutionalizing political parties in emergent democracies. With elections imminent and in the face of several unpopular revelations, it is not surprising that some parties hope to stem the tide of losing popular support by harking back to past. It remains to be seen if this will work in the immediate term; there is no question, however, that in the medium- and long-term, programmatic appeal or policy record are the bases for electoral success.

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