Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 07:57 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 07:57 | SYDNEY

Indonesia: Democracy is not enough


Stephen Grenville

14 December 2010 09:11

Foreign commentators have unanimously admired the progress of democracy in Indonesia in the post-Soeharto era. Judged from the efficiency and fairness of the voting process, the achievement is indeed a triumph.

The harder judgment (but more relevant for a true appraisal of how democracy is traveling) is whether the democratically elected Parliament is providing the sort of decision-making and governance framework that Indonesia needs. There is no shortage of down-beat evidence, ranging from the dysfunctional relationship between the President and the Parliament, to the current bribery charges against a wide-spread group of Parliamentarians over a central bank appointment.

One other indicator has gone unremarked, as no one has much interest in telling the damp-squib ending to a long-running saga. Indonesia came through the international financial crisis quite well, but there were shockwaves. In 2008, Bank Century (a middle-tier bank) failed and was taken over by the Government. The bank resolution was executed efficiently, in accordance with well-prepared safety-net procedures.

Parliament, however, chose to use the 'bailout' as an opportunity to attack the Vice President and Finance Minister. A four-month witch-hunt by a Parliamentary Committee failed to find anything specifically wrong with the bail-out but commissioned the KPK (Corruption Eradication Committee) to search out wrong-doing. Now the KPK has formally pronounced that it could find nothing wrong, and no-one to charge with corruption. It might be worth noting that the KPK is no reticent paper tiger; it has an unblemished record in convicting all those it has charged with corruption.

Should we now conclude that Good has triumphed over Evil' Well, in a way it has, but at great cost.

This case has further weakened the President's ability to work with Parliament, has distracted law-makers for the best part of two years (holding up vital legislation), and the energetic and effective Finance Minister has given up and gone to work for the World Bank in Washington, with her entourage of reform-minded bureaucrats now largely dispersed. The Vice President, another potential source of economic reform, is now largely confined to ceremonial duties — what our former Governor General Bill Hayden described as 'a fête worse than death'.

Of course, a smoothly-functioning democracy is not built in a decade. And episodes like this may shift the balance a little in the right direction. But when foreign commentators evaluate the state of play of democracy, they should look deeper than simply counting the voter turn-out and absence of polling irregularities. The key point to consider is that governments, especially in poor countries, need to be effective as well as democratic.

Photo by Flickr user isafrancesca.