More elections, less democracy?

Perspektif Online
02 August 2018

More elections, less democracy?

By Wimar Witoelar

A pair of writers, Lauren Leatherby and Mira Rojanasakul, recently wrote an article for which is really salient in these political times. The article pointed out there is a global trend that as more elections are held the world is getting less democratic. They say this is the first time in several decades.

It happens almost on an annual basis as more and more countries hold elections, the democratic process produces less than perfect democracies, in fact autocracies, Take the case of the Philippines that cleansed itself from corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos through democratic elections. But now elections produce President Duterte who is hardly a model for democracy and human rights.

A glaring example is the United States which has been the main sponsor of democracy in the world. America teaches the world about democracy. America liberates countries to make them “safe for democracy.” And they held an election in 2016 which produced Donald Trump who is anti-democratic in every instinct. In less than two years President Trump has reversed the course of America on human rights, press freedom, climate change, good governance. His slogan “Make America Great Again” appeals to xenophobes and racists under the guise of populism. Fortunately institutions such as the courts and the communities remain strong in upholding American values. Trump’s twitter pronouncements are not always translated into policy and reality.

Closer to home we had recently in 2017 the local elections for the Governor of Jakarta. We all know the results. The very popular, effective and honest Governor Ahok was defeated in the second round of the election by a person who largely used the emotions of identity politics, issues of race and religion to claim a place in the top Indonesian political echelons.

Election results in European countries have also produced populism but let us look closer to home. We had a sharply contested presidential election in 2014.. Jokowi won through a grassroots campaign based on volunteers and common sense homilies against an opponent who used ultra-nationalist symbols and bombastic shows of power, supported by righteous politicians. The grassroots volunteers won and stayed away from populism. So far Indonesia’s democracy has not become counterproductive. We still have results going either way. In a widely watched gubernatorial elections in 2017 Jakarta had a democratic election producing populist winners using the majority religion as an emotional base. But then the recent local elections (Pilkada) of 2018 produced victories in Java’s three provinces for leaders - Ridwan Kamil, Ganjar Pranowo and Khofifah - who do not practice identity politics. They won on their track records of solid achievements.

The jury is still out on the results of democratic elections in Indonesia. But suffice it to say one cannot take democracy for granted to be the best system possible for a nation. John Adams expressed his pessimism as follows: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

It’s quite sad In America to see democracy under attack by their own leader. It’s different in Indonesia. We can be more optimistic. People are learning from their lessons and not letting the radicals take control of the situation. We saw how former President SBY and aspirant Prabowo held a joint press conference in which a statement was read preceded by statements of intent to keep the elections peaceful, free and fair, and to keep identity politics out of the campaign. That is a repudiation  on the hate statements of the last two years. In fact Prabowo appears to walk back from his incendiary style.

We are survivors. We survived Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation. We survived Sukarno, the most charismatic leader in our history, by allowing him to self-destruct. We survived Suharto, the most effective leader in our history, by pushing back against his corruption and human rights. We are surviving our electoral democracy through a succession of five presidents with the energy of a free press, a vibrant civil society and a population who learn from experience.

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