Yohanes Sulaiman & Phillip Turnbull
In the past few days, students and various mass organizations claiming to represent the people have hit the road and are protesting against the proposed fuel price increase. In some areas, the rallies turned anarchic, such as students looting a fuel pump in Makassar, a truck belonged to Coca-Cola and a truck carrying dozens of three-kilogram LPG containers.
Such anarchic actions seem to validate the government’s assertion to the public for the past several weeks that some parties would ride the wave of protest, trying to bring down the government. Thus, Djoko Suyanto, the coordinating minister for political, legal and defense affairs, declared that the military would be called upon to tackle any such behavior by protesters.
Many observers think the government is overreacting in threatening to bring in the military. Using the military against protesters is like using a sledgehammer to crush a nut, fostering the idea that the government is returning to authoritarian methods that would further undermine trust in the government and its commitment to democracy, which presupposes the right to lawful protest.
However, it is well known that a significant number of demonstrators are either paid by various interest groups opposed to the government or are simply opportunists trying to take advantage of the situation to push other agendas.
Neither author claims that all the student demonstrators have dubious motivations in hitting the streets. Some of them are truly idealistic, hoping that their peaceful rallies will change the government’s mind to rescind the increase in the price of fuel due to its perceived adverse effects on low-income citizens.
Yet money politics permeates all aspects of Indonesian political life and thus it is a preferred method of managing street protests. Prior to elections we have rent-a-rallies and after the elections we have rent-a-protest groups or mobs. Both commodities, bought and sold by political parties and behind-the-scenes factions intent on protecting their political and economic turf, indicate dramatically how removed from reality the government and these elite are.
It is a damning admission that the political parties have very little sincere, grassroots support or contact with ordinary Indonesians. When it needs their support it, has to purchase it.
How did this start? Many members of the political elite live in a world apart from the masses. Most political elites are the offspring of the members of the political elite of old; privileged cronies of past regimes who rose to the heights through the patronage system. Sadly, too many of them still think this is also the way to relate to the electorate.
At the same time, there are the strongmen with a lot of local influence among the less politically educated who can bring in the mob at a moment’s notice should the price be right.
This surly side of day-to-day politics has its precedent in Indonesian history, where, as a result of weak state control over the people due to the nation’s geography, many local toughs were able to act with impunity, intimidating voters at the behest of some of the parties. While these mobsters showed some token respect to the central government, their actions were condoned or ignored.
Indonesian politics is basically a marriage of these two interests: a political elite that does not have authentic grassroots support and the local toughs whose access to power, influence and protection is guaranteed by certain politicians and elite in so far as they promote the politicians’ interests through intimidation, the coercion of communities through offers of payouts and infiltrating genuine protest movements.
The money to pay for this rigged support is presumed to come from dubious sources, so in a sense it is the people themselves, in the long run, who pay out of their own pockets for the “bread and circuses” offered to them by the politicians.
The recent suggestion, denied by the palace, that the president bought off student leaders with the offer a free junket to China to silence their opposition to the coming fuel price increase, is an “Exhibit A” for this untoward influence of money in the political process.
While it is unimaginable that an administration could be so gauche or student leaders so unprincipled and easily swayed, the fact that such a preposterous suggestion got into the media is an indication that in the popular mind, anything is possible and any lengths can be taken in an attempt to safeguard political interests.
Peaceful protest and political rallies are a basic cornerstone of a healthy democratic system. At their essence, they express publicly that democracy is brought into being by the voice and will of the people, not cash payments. Sadly today it is still the case that a large number of voters are not politically sophisticated and can be bought off.
And as for purchasing a response to the projected cut in fuel levies, with the cult of popularity highly influential in the choice voters make at the polls, the parties are intent on projecting a popular image. Hence we are witnessing a cynical tug-of-war between indistinguishable self-interested groups over the distribution of the direct cash assistance (BLT) program.
The Democrats want it distributed through post offices so they can give the impression to the beneficiaries that it is from the Democratic Party while Golkar wants it done through provincial administrative agencies, which are largely controlled by Golkar members, so that it will be seen as largess from the Golkar Party.
The fact that these are state funds and belong to the people and the country and not to any particular party seems a nicety that both these contenders for the 2014 Jakarta gubernatorial election seem happy to overlook in their efforts to pull a swift one over the people.
Whatever the demerits of a cut in fuel subsidies, it has to be acknowledged that there is some sound economic rationale behind this unpopular political decision. Indonesia cannot continue to subsidize various goods to the detriment of spending in other areas. For example, the money for subsidies is, according to a World Bank report, already greater than the money spent on education in a country with a questionable standard of education.
In the meantime, what we are witnessing is clear evidence that while Indonesia continues to make often painfully slow progress towards open and transparent democratic governance, old habits die hard. And because there is scant evidence that the politicians themselves seem willing, interested or capable of making the necessary shift away from buying votes and support, it is up to ordinary residents to make that change.
To resist the lure of a handout for cheap promises is costly. To resist the lure of payment to protest an issue to which you have no real commitment or interest is selling yourself short and giving too much power to politicians and their strongmen. Indonesian politicians have better things to do with the money to hand than buying short term, illusory voter support. The money would be better spent on long-term infrastructure development and social support programs, not “bread and circuses.”
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan). Phillip Turnbull is a theology teacher based in Jakarta.