The Thinker: Let Yogya Be Yogya
Oei Eng Goan
The question of whether the special territory of Yogyakarta needs an elected or appointed governor was recently raised by Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, the current governor, reminding the government and the House of Representatives that they need to come to a wise and concrete solution.
A draft law on the special status of Yogyakarta was proposed in 1998 following political reforms that swept over the country that year, but deliberation of the draft has stalled time and again without a satisfactory explanation.
In line with Indonesia’s Constitution and Yogyakarta’s long history and invaluable contributions to the nation during the revolutionary years of early independence, the territory was granted a special status equal to that of a province and is led by the ruler of the sultanate.
Hamengkubuwono IX, the father of the current sultan and an ardent nationalist, declared on Sept. 5, 1945, that he supported the struggle for independence and that the sultanate was part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia.
From 1946 to 1949, Yogyakarta served as the capital of the newly independent republic, with moral and financial support provided by the sultan, who remained the de facto political and cultural leader as governor until his death in 1988. Traditionally, the governor of Yogyakarta, more commonly known simply as Yogya, is the sultan and his deputy is Prince Paku Alam. On their deaths, the positions are passed to their offspring.
Despite the absence of gubernatorial elections, two generations of governors have done a commendable job of overseeing the sultanate’s affairs, developing the province and maintaining racial harmony and religious tolerance.
Some lawmakers and government officials, however, are against this traditional leadership on the grounds that it is contrary to the democratic system that the country adopted in 1998, which compels a regional leader to run for election before holding office.
The issue became heated in 2010, when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono remarked that a monarchy conflicted with Indonesian democracy. That remark led to protests, with some people going so far as accusing the president of not truly understanding the country’s Constitution.
Sultan Hamengkubuwono X is the governor as well as the monarch. Like other governors across the country, he has to abide by and implement national laws and regulations issued by the central government in Jakarta. “So, in what way is Yogyakarta undemocratic?” responded the sultan after Yudhoyono’s remarks. Of course he deserves additional privileges given that he is also the monarch of Yogyakarta.
Save for a few groups of lawmakers and opportunistic politicians, most residents of Yogyakarta and millions of Indonesians nationwide believe that democracy also embraces national characteristics and local values, which say the governor of the region is appointed without having to run in an election.
This traditional way, they argue, is far more fair than the electoral system, which is costly and prone to illegal practices like vote-buying. Scores of governors and district chiefs have been convicted and jailed for stealing state money to “compensate” themselves for what they had to spend during the election campaign.
Many political scientists and historians have urged members of House of Representatives Commission II, which oversees domestic affairs, regional administrations and bureaucratic reform, to pass a bill on Yogya’s status and governorship in August before the sultan’s term expires in October.
They say that changing the traditional system and fully adopting Western-style democracy would be a breach of the Constitution and a show of ingratitude for everything that Yogyakarta did for the nation.
So why not let Yogya be Yogya?
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecturer at the National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.