Good Guys Electing Bad Guys

Today Singapore
05 April 2004
On Monday April 5, more than 120 million Indonesians will go to the polls. This brings to an end the days of noisy traffic congestion, and colorful scenes of campaign rallies displaying splashes of red, yellow, green, white, blue, in mass festivities absorbing tens of thousands of people.

There has not been as much news about the political events as there was in the past. The trouble spots in the world command the major news stories. Only residents of Indonesia feel the sigh of relief which spreads throughout the archipelago. Contrary to the fears of many, the campaigning period has passed off relatively peacefully. A substantial part of the activities has moved to TV clips, debates, print ads and billboards. In fact there is a boost to the consumer economy as billions of Rupiah flood the market through campaign spending.

The main reason of the lower level of adrenalin is actually fatigue. The current government has doused the fires of reform that burned in our hearts since the magic of 1998 when Soeharto was pushed from power by sheer emotional commitment. The politicians who took over from the popular movement failed to use the momentum for reform. Instead they established new political elite and brought a retrogressive regime to power. President Megawati curiously reflects more of the Soeharto political culture than the pioneering spirit of her father Soekarno, in whose image she was put in power by her political handlers.

There is little optimism in the 2004 elections but actually there is immense potential. Quite the reverse of the 1998 situation when there was euphoria but no infrastructure for reform. At that time the civil society was nonexistent but the emerging leaders were reformists. Now we have the first elections run by an independent body – called the KPU - totally free of government intervention. But the candidates are either felons or reruns from past regimes or opportunists trying out newly acquired skills of abuse of power and corruption. It is now a case of good guys electing bad guys,

The good guys are the people who run the 2004 elections. There a lot of jokes over the logistics mishaps in preparations for the elections. Forms late in getting printed and distributed, lack of information, and problems in communications. But to bring the proper perspective, KPU is facing an enormous task, for which there is no precedent anywhere. The figures are mind-boggling: more than 400,000 candidates on more than 2000 different ballot papers totaling 600 million ballot sheets, to be distributed to 600,000 polling locations. The complications of the new rules are side effects of electoral reform. What other country of this size (or any size for that matter) has their head of state elected directly by popular vote?

But the really good guys are the people who will go to the elections. The ordinary man and woman who want a better life. People who never want trouble, who are proving that they are good when there is no activity from shadowy figures. The funny thing is that because the bad guys are now reinstated in the system after futile attempts to push them out from 1998 to 2001, they have become harmless. They are more interested in seeing their images in respectable poses than lurking around masterminding mayhem to destabilize the wave of reform.

Things look discouraging when you look at the candidates. But process and results are rarely in sync. When you work out in the gym it is all sweat and tears, but later your body will bring you pride. When you buy a water pump (which Singaporeans rarely do) you start with a clean pump producing dirty water, and only after several days does the pump bring clean water. Parents raise their children with a mixture of hope and grief, but when the children become adults it is mostly joy, if you are as lucky as I am.

Indonesia has to be lucky now because we have been so unlucky in the past. Indonesia is a war child, giving birth to itself not by the good graces of colonialists but by intense armed conflict. We have had to fight against religious conflict, with greater success than most outsiders may think. We have had social upheavals, political turnarounds and economic collapse unmatched in the area. But now there is peace. Islam is not a point of conflict in today’s Indonesia. We can tell good people apart from bad people even when Muslims look particularly frightening to outsiders. No party with a serious chance in the elections has picked up a religious theme except to send soothing messages of tolerance. Xenophobic rhetoric is absent. Pluralism is our theme as we downplay ethnic, religious and regional differences.

It has been only six years since we sent off a repressive regime. What we have now is at worst a messy state, and at best a fledgling democracy. Democratic change has to come from within. Sacrifices brought now, for democracy and human rights, are likely to pre-empt future suffering and pain, because in the end people will claim their legitimate democratic rights, whatever the cost. In the mean time, we will start with the good guys electing bad guys.

Wimar Witoelar was spokesman for President Abdurrahman Wahid and now heads a communications consulting firm.

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