Reflection: Ahok’s loss is not a defeat for Indonesia’s democracy

Although I am not from Jakarta, I was personally disappointed – but not too surprised – at the outcome of the second-round gubernatorial election in the capital of Indonesia, which was held this Wednesday, on April 19.

For a backgrounder, let me explain briefly about the electoral race.

On one side, there is the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the city’s first ethnic Chinese – and second Christian – leader. Known by his Chinese nickname “Ahok” (as it is Hakka pronunciation for the last character of his Chinese name, 锺万学), he has taken over the position as the governor of this city of 10 million since November 2014 after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, also known as his political ally, undertook the position as the 7th President of Indonesia. On the other hand, there is his rival, Anies Baswedan, a Yemeni-descended US-educated technocrat and former Minister of Education who has been – very recently – pandering to the more hard-line Muslim organizations, all under full support by opposition parties led by the former 2014 presidential candidate, retired general Prabowo Subianto, who was also Widodo’s rival. Pairing with Baswedan is Sandiaga Uno, a US-educated businessman and billionaire investor, who has gained notoriety after his name was included in Panama Paper leaks. Pairing with Ahok, meanwhile, is Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the current deputy governor.

What made the 2017 gubernatorial election so unusual compared to other local elections in Indonesia was the massive scope – and also considerable controversy and polarization – related to the two candidates. The hype started in the aftermath of Ahok’s alleged blasphemy against Islam in June 2016, when he encouraged people of Jakarta not to be easily deceived by certain political forces using Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran (known as Surat Al-Maidah) to block him, the content by which contains restriction for Muslims to vote for non-Muslim leaders in Muslim countries. Somebody in YouTube intentionally revised his speech, subsequently editing it into “encouraging people not to be easily deceived by Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran”. Although the editor had been arrested himself and Ahok had repeatedly clarified his statement – and even issued multiple apologies, the snowball was just becoming too big to handle. It culminated in mass protests in November and December 2016 – many of which were led and supported by hard-line Muslim organizations, demanding Ahok’s dismissal as governor, his imprisonment, or even openly calling out to “kill Chinese”, referring to his ethnic Chinese origin. Simultaneously, he was immediately named a blasphemy suspect, and has since been attending weekly trials in one of Jakarta’s district courts. All this was happening at the same time he was running for gubernatorial race.

The controversy further took place when Baswedan – long known as a moderate-leaning Muslim, and even nominated by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals back in 2008 – met several times with the same hard-line Muslim leaders who had been leading mass protests against Ahok, oftentimes even showing open support for their action. He was subsequently supported by a coalition of parties led by Prabowo Subianto – a former general and presidential candidate in 2014 also associated with his own controversies, allegedly human rights abuses in the Suharto era. In the second round of the election, Baswedan – whose only governmental experience was being Minister of Education under Widodo administration – won decisively against Ahok; based on the ongoing tallies by the election commission, 57% of eligible votes went to Baswedan – as opposed to 43% to Ahok.

And all this was happening when Ahok’s approval rating as the governor was over 68%. That means although some people openly approved of Ahok’s achievements throughout his tenure, a considerable percentage of them actually decided – ironically – to vote him out of office.

Briefly speaking, his achievements – first as deputy governor (2012-2014) and later as governor (from 2014 onward) – had been his efforts at budget reforms (computerizing the budgeting system under joint supervision with Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency), infrastructure construction, bureaucracy reforms, public housing for the low-income and poor, public transportation, flood-control measures (due to Jakarta’s recurrent flood seasons), as well as social welfare, particularly in education and healthcare. What was significant, in particular, was his flood-control measures, which involved cleaning up rivers, and most controversially, evicting a large number of riverside communities to pave way for canal normalization, the alternative by which was their relocation to government-built apartments. This, actually, became a source of consternation and alienation for some of the affected people, many of whom had previously shown support for both Widodo and Ahok in the preceding 2012 gubernatorial election.

Despite his achievements, he had been barely short of controversies – even before the alleged blasphemy. He was known for his “Sumatran” talking style (a stereotypical way to describe outspoken, loud-talking, and perceivedly-rude people, but I’m from Sumatra too), and not infrequently his past statements had offended a significant number of individuals – mostly politicians and bureaucrats whom he accused of “manipulating taxpayers’ money”.  His shortcoming, in this regard, was his ill-temper. His controversies notwithstanding, he has remained largely popular among a substantial percentage of people in the city, given his informal and direct way of communication. He has several hotline numbers so that people can directly report to him for problems within the city, and has even personally attended wedding events of ordinary Jakarta people – as long as they extended invitation to the governor.

It is inevitable that the blasphemy charges against Ahok had cost him a considerable amount of political support. Indeed, the gubernatorial election has been extensively covered in international media, most of which has the theme of “an ethnic Chinese Christian governor pitted against an ethnic Arab Muslim candidate supported by hard-liners”. The New York Times called it “a referendum on pluralism versus Islamism”. Some observers even considered Anies’ electoral victory as “an omen to Indonesian democracy and respect for diversity”. And personally speaking, I was disappointed. But there are way more complicating explanations behind his victory. For some perspectives, I would rather use a half-glass-full than half-glass-empty approach.

First, to have secured over 43% of voters’ support despite the ongoing blasphemy trials has itself been a progress for Ahok. I admit that ethnic, racial, and religious overtones among supporters of both candidates had been particularly heated – and even at times nasty – especially when you look at social media posts (should you understand Indonesian), but we need to look at a bigger picture here: over 85% out of 10 million people living in Jakarta are Muslims. In this regard, over 1.5 million people in Jakarta are non-Muslims. As there are more than 7 million eligible voters in the city, if we referred to the 77% voter turnout in the first round of the election (close to 5.4 million people who went out and voted) – and if this turnout was sustained in the second round – that meant more than 2.3 million people actually voted for Ahok, a figure close to 2.36 million who voted for him in the first round. Obviously, a large proportion of his supporters are Muslims themselves, and not all non-Muslims necessarily showed their support to the incumbent. Therefore, this argument should defeat the overwhelming theme among international news stories as already mentioned in the prior paragraph. Also, many among Anies-Sandi supporters are non-Muslims, particularly ethnic Chinese local business elites who would opt for “business climate stability”. One of the pair’s most ardent supporters is Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic Chinese tycoon who controls 4 out of 10 national TV stations, and oftentimes described as “Donald Trump of Indonesia” (because his most influential idol is Trump, and his presidential aspiration himself).

Second, to have an ethnic Chinese governor running Indonesia’s capital and most populous city less than two decades after deadly anti-Chinese riots is also another breakthrough. During the May 1998 riots that led to the ouster of Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime, most of the victims were middle- and lower-income ethnic Chinese whose shops and houses had been looted and burned, or who were themselves killed and brutally tortured. By November 2014, upon Widodo’s inauguration as President, Ahok – then his deputy – succeeded him. His appointment had been greeted by protests among hard-line organizations, but with his approval rating (by the end of 2016) remaining at 68% and with his governorship fairly smooth and stable (despite blasphemy charges), this has been itself a major achievement. All this happened within less than two decades, and to have this attained with minimum hurdles has never been an easy task.

Third, democracy in Indonesia is just barely as perfect as democracy in other countries. Sometimes, democracy is about choosing “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing”, with us oftentimes behaving ignorantly on who the heck that sheep is. And we have seen some of the worst examples of it: slightly above 50% of British voters opted for Brexit (only to search in Google on what on earth European Union is), many American voters went for Donald Trump despite having a relatively high (56%) approval rating of President Barack Obama (although Hillary Clinton secured nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but thanks to electoral college). With the presidential election taking place in France as of the day I am writing this post, I would be very curious to see whether the far-right Le Pen, inexperienced-but-last-hope Macron, no-job-but-highly-paid Republican Fillon, or the communist, hologram-loving Melenchon would advance to the second round. Democracy, dangerously, can become a tool to elect somebody who may opt to end democracy once and for all. This is the age of political bubble and extreme polarization that we will continue to live in for the remainder of this century, as economic inequality, social media, and technological disruption continue to reshape our lives and how we view and manifest the world in ourselves.

Fourth, ethnic, racial, and religious sentiment is hardly new for this country. Democracy is only less than 20 years old in Indonesia, and like a typical teenager, it is not yet close to mature and emotionally volatile. Candidates in local elections have often touted their religious credentials – or proudly espoused their ethnic identities – as their “major recipe” to get elected to public offices, and not infrequently, this has been used as a tool to weaponize their rivals. People don’t get to change their mindset in a short term; depending on a country’s level of development, the change may either happen, or things will stay flat. This nation still has a long road to go to learn from its past mistakes.

Fifth, and lastly, Ahok still has the remaining 6 months as the governor, before his tenure is over on October this year. I am confident he is able to make achievements within this time period. For any successor – Baswedan notwithstanding – to dismantle his legacies will not be as easy as flipping over a paper.

These are the reasons why I refuse to believe that Ahok’s loss is a defeat for Indonesian democracy. Ironically, it is a dynamic principle of democracy itself: either you gain confidence among voters and they will vote for you, or that you do something wrong and they will vote you out. The irony is that frequent leadership turnovers hardly sustains long-term policy-making, but for better or worse, we are now living in an age of popular vote. Look at elsewhere across the world, and the distress is also there: many people are becoming disillusioned with democracy, political establishment, and all this stuff. Life, after all, has to go on. Moreover, most leaders – in the end – will no longer talk and act like they were as candidates; they would – adhering to the “median-voter theorem” – be hard-pressed to end up in the “center”. They would be pressed to accommodate the interests of all people, even the interests of constituents who had sided with their electoral rivals. The question is whether Anies and Sandi would be able to accommodate the interests of all people in the capital city.

Saving democracy from democracy itself

democracy-under-test

First and foremost, I hope that everyone reading this post enjoy a merry Christmas (or, if you are not a Christian, at least a good holiday). I am sure that 2016 has been a tough, strange, sad, and maddening year, given the occurrences of many ‘weird’ events throughout this year. As we are welcoming 2017, which is only a few days ahead of now, it may be worthwhile to spend a little bit time to reflect stuff that has occurred in the last 12 months.

There is one inconvenient condition, at the least, that we must all acknowledge on the first hand: democracy is not working well. I do not know to which extent you deeply support the notion of democracy or its ideals, and I do not even know if you support its very essence at all, but the first precondition that we must be aware is that there is something wrong with how we implement democracy across the world.

We even need to start asking ourselves: how do we actually define a democracy? If we think democracy is no more than voting, protesting, and changing governments, then something is wrong with our conceptual framework about this idea. Even China, all that we know as a one-party authoritarian state, regularly holds direct elections (although constrained on the village level) and experienced almost 100,000 protests in 2015, although the nature of these protests was mostly about grievances against local governments. Is it a sign of democratization? Assuming ceteris paribus, I do not see its democratizing prospects in the long run, given that majority of the middle class in China still support the Communist Party regime.

That’s the case for China. Then we have the populist-wave phenomenon in the Western world. People in this hemisphere have experienced the refugee crisis, suffered from terrorist attacks, seen worsening inequalities, and undergone stagnant income gains with sluggish economic growth rates. We’ve seen the impacts of ‘Brexit’ (even though the real Brexit has not really taken place), and the biggest amplifier of all, the fact that we will see Donald Trump (and all the brouhaha that we have known) becoming the 45th President of the United States.

Perhaps the world is preoccupied with the Brexit and Donald Trump phenomenon, but do not get entrapped in such common knowledge bias: the quality of democracy is in decline worldwide. Stanford-based political scientist Larry Diamond, in his January 2015 research paper, has highlighted that since 2005 onward, the growth of democracies has stagnated, and even slightly declined. Looking at the current context, we’ve seen quite a number of these illustrations. The increasing centralization of power in Turkey under Erdogan. Putin’s continued dominance in Russian politics, despite economic crisis and stagnation. The victory and ongoing rule of hard-line populist parties in Poland and Hungary. Excluding 25 other cases that Diamond listed in his paper.

Remember one thing in the first place, though: they gain power not through illegitimate means, but through elections, many of which are actually competitive.

I am not saying that democracy is going to collapse anytime soon; indeed, both Larry Diamond and Dan Slater (another renown political scientist based in University of Chicago) concurred that democracy will stay in the long run. Rather, what they (and also I) worry is that certain political forces may hijack the very purpose of democracy for their own advantages. That, I argue, may lead to the subsequent decline in the quality of the democracy itself. After all, differentiate the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’; the former relates to what ideas are best accepted by the majority in a polity, while the latter relates to the checks and balances of the former. The current tendency, nevertheless, is that democracy has been so seriously misused that we all begin to see the unexpected – and oftentimes unwanted – consequences: clientelism, political corruption, populism, demagoguery, tyranny of the majority, polarization, and ‘manipulation of the game’; or, to put it in layman’s term, the fact that any alternating government will not be able to change the existing flaws in the political system.

This is not to say that other alternatives are necessarily better than democracy; Przeworski et al., in a signature 2000 paper, has argued that economic development bears little (or even no) correlation with a country’s political status as either a dictatorship or a democracy. That said, it does not matter whether a country is still ruled by an authoritarian regime or has already democratized; as long as the government can deliver outcomes as promised to the people, there should be a degree of stability. What I am saying here, in this regard, is for us to experience ‘a rude awakening’ of the current flaws in the implementation of democracy.

Here are some personal suggestions that I can think of in how we can save the benefits promised by democracy from its debilitating disadvantages, especially as we are welcoming 2017:

First and foremost, acknowledge that democracy does not make us ‘live in paradise’.

Our ‘obligation’ to preserve democracy has been largely ceremonial and superficial: we go to voting booths to vote for candidates, and end of story. I don’t care whether you have ever voted or not, but I get the feeling when people express their dissatisfaction and voice that ‘whoever becomes elected, nothing has ever changed’. Presidents or prime ministers come and go, but some problems are becoming worse. In the 2016 US election alone, over 100 million eligible voters did not cast their support to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (let alone Gary Johnson or Jill Stein). I may understand the prevailing sentiment among these people about these candidates, and acknowledging that, on the first place, is a first step to deconstruct our thought processes about the notion of democracy.

Second, when you are presented with contradictory arguments, no matter how uncomfortable or painful they are, ‘do not hide in safe spaces’.

Many of us may find the statement ‘politically correct’ allergic. And sometimes, I personally feel that, too. Nonetheless, most of our time, we have been raised in a way that we can only voice out issues that conform to the ‘politically correct’ notion. Any slight deviation from the general consensus will be immediately ‘shut down’ by tirades of ‘political correctness’, and sometimes with credible threats of coercion. What’s the consequence? We refuse to listen to ‘inconvenient truths’, preferring ourselves to stay within our own comfort zones that we have been so deeply imbued with. I don’t care if you are a liberal, a conservative, or simply ‘an ordinary guy’, but if we, even at the very first place, have begun to censor our mindsets with filters of certain notions or perceptions associated with ‘the other party’, we end up labeling the other side into a monolith. Liberals shutting down the conservatives, conservatives shutting down the liberals, etc. Bubbles proliferate, and when they explode, the outcomes can be fatal. Civil conflicts, riots, uncompromising polarization, winner-takes-all attitude, or even mass casualties, all these outcomes are possible. Why don’t we all minimize our ego and start listening? Not that their ideas may be entirely correct, but at least, we may find a certain degree of ‘virtues’ in their arguments. Unfortunately, this second step may be the most difficult thing to do (given our prevailing dogma, stereotyping, and other biases within our mindsets).

Third, educate ourselves about civic rights. And as long as you have enough resources, do something.

I am sure that most of us have, at least, been engaged in a certain community-themed action, no matter how small it is. Be it visiting elderly people, providing free food for poor or homeless people or refugees, or volunteering for an NGO or a religious or social movement, such actions can already be considered as ‘breeding grounds’ for us to learn more about issues related to our society. We do good things not only to wish ourselves ending up in heaven, or to win more business contracts for our enterprises because of good publicity (ironically, that’s what CSR is all about), but also to understand in further depth about the roots of these problems. Why there are such communities that they may need our assistance. Understanding their issues, listening to their perspectives, and fully discerning their hardships may be another step to make us more aware about the concept of civil society.

Most importantly, if you are parents (I am still a 21-year-old guy, by the way), and your children are still young, educate them about the importance of civil society. Get them involved about these issues. You may disagree with me to a certain extent, but I do believe that the earlier we are exposed to these problems, the more we become aware of what we can contribute to solve these problems.

Fourth, compromise, no matter how unpopular it is.

Compromise often sounds dirty, or something like a C-word. But, again, be aware of the existing reality: society is a set of constantly competing interests, ideas, power, and forces. There are a lot of diverse groups from ethnic, racial, social, economic, religious, and various other defining features. It is correct that we strive to advocate our ideas, and sometimes we may have to compete with others, but when these become winner-takes-all struggles, it poses a danger to our long-term democratic values. After all, one feature of democracy is that it is raucous, noisy, and oftentimes chaotic. However, in the end, still, we must come to the realization that some of our interests do not always overlap with the others, but we can not overlook them, either. They are still part of our society. In the end, there are some painful compromises we must make. I do not ask for us to completely give up our rights, but to trade some issues of ‘minor’ importance, which may be of major importance for the other. This does not sound popular at all, but that is why I ask all of us to make such sacrifices, occasionally.

Fifth, and lastly, remain critical of our surrounding environment.

This may be difficult to apply in certain hybrid or authoritarian regimes, but after all, dissenters still exist everywhere. When we vote somebody to a public office, we entrust him or her with a significant degree of trust that the leader will do something. That we will hold our support toward them accountable. That is why, no matter what policies the leaders do, do not stop being critical. Write our thoughts, ideas, and feedback about certain policies in a civic and restrained manner (especially if you live in a country that does not seem too much like a democracy). If you are afraid to do so with the central or federal government, at least start from the localities we live in. Do not hesitate to criticize when there are things worth raising for.

I do not guarantee whether all these five suggestions are applicable, but if you believe that democracy is the least bad form of political system (as I personally also do), I still believe that these ideas are worth for consideration. Particularly in the age of social media – and the massive flurry of deliberate misinformation or ‘fake news’ – never before has it become so imperative for us to maintain our critical-thinking skills. I choose to believe that this matters, not only for this generation, but for future generations to come.

Additional readings:

 

Is Democracy In Decline? Published by Georgetown University.

Papers citing Larry Diamond’s paper, as listed in Google Scholar link here.

Democracy as a ‘sinking ship’?

democracy

 

The notion of democracy has been going through a turbulent path these days. From a contemporary aspect, we can refer to phenomena like the Brexit, the rise of nativists-populists epitomized by that corn-haired Donald Trump, and most recently, the military coup attempt in Turkey last Friday. We criticize such outcomes as malcontent, harbingers of something more dangerous to come, or short-sighted, but if we take into account deeper consideration, aren’t all these enabled – either directly or indirectly – from the very core processes we consider as ‘democratic’ instead?

This is not an academic paper that tries to discuss about democracy (although I would be very interested to author one), but – as a way to showcase my right of civil liberties – let us have a frank discussion about it. First thing first, we need to acknowledge that there are no perfect political ideologies, even in the concept of ‘democracy’. To understand about the existing dichotomy, let us the origin of this notion back into Ancient Greece, somewhere around 6th (or maybe 7th) century BC. Aristotle, or our genius philosophy bro’ who invented almost every field we study today, postulated that the main aim of democracy is to achieve freedom. On the other school of thought, we got the other partners-in-crime (Plato and Socrates, one of whom the other betrayed) who argued that democracy is no different from mob rule, or most commonly referred to as ‘tyranny of the majority’. One alternative proposition – or maybe compromise – offered by these philosophers was to use the term ‘polyarchy’. Defined as ‘rule by more than one person’, polyarchy still slightly differs from democracy in that the former postulates a set of institutions, constraints, and procedures that aim to balance the utilization of democracy, which the latter actually does not posit. If we adapt these debates to contemporary settings, the resulting outcome – voila! – is polarization within the society. People debate on how democracy should be done and represented. One school wants maximum participation from the people – and the people alone, while the other wants a more procedural, representative, and legally-constraining measures to not let democracy ‘erupt into complete anarchy’, which this school dreads of.

Efforts to promote democracy have been tied in orthodoxy as part of the Western world’s foreign-policy approaches in their contemporary ‘nation-building’ projects. United States – the current world superpower – is still actively promoting this idea (though no longer as active as in the past), and is followed suit by other European countries. Through epic makeups, democracy is parceled and decorated as though they were ‘gifts from Santa Claus’. Except from the cases of US-led democratization in Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, most of their efforts have been largely mixed. Ironically, indeed, the idea of ‘democracy promotion’ was so subverted that the West ended up supporting any regimes they could label as ‘democratic’ – as long as they were anti-Communist. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Libya, Syria, etc) did not produce any tangible democracies; what we have is instead the rise of ISIS (or a more derogatory one, Daesh), the continuation of tribal, sectarian, and ethnic warfare, and regional instability. What the heck is wrong with all these so-called ‘democracy promotion’ things?

Many scholars have offered various answers and interpretations in order to answer such prevailing puzzle, but many of their explanations are contextually dependent on the regions they are specializing in. Experts such as Scott Mainwaring, James Fearon, David Laitin, David Collier, and Steven Levitsky have expertise in the Latin American contexts – and Collier and Levitsky have published a paper that aims to categorize democracies based on their knowledge in this region. On the other hand, we have experts such as Dan Slater, Tom Pepinsky, Eddy Malesky, Donald Emmerson, etc, who specialized in the context of Asia-Pacific region. We also have scholars that try to explain democracy from a political-economic framework, such as Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, and Stephan Haggard. And then we have scholars that explain democracy through massive global datasets that they have toiled to develop, such as Barbara Geddes, Adam Przeworski, Monty G. Marshall, etc. These are just some people I mention which papers I have read, and I’m sure there are way many more of them whose works I have yet to review. As each of them may offer some variation of insight about the dichotomy of democracy when compared to other issues, I can hardly type in through their postulation in this blog post (it’s too long, and I need to spend quite a large amount of time re-reading their papers).

The best explanation, I would emphasize, is to read Why Nations Fail, co-authored by Daron Acemoglu (MIT economist) and James A. Robinson (Harvard economist). They focus on the role played by institutions, which actually matter more than democracies do, in delivering outcomes from the authority to the people. Thus, here is the premise: if a country can not build an inclusive institutional setup that accommodates everyone’s interests, then the polity is designed to doom. While this book provides a largely historical perspective, in case you want to explore even further, you can try to read their another book titled ‘Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship’. With tons of pages of intricate econometric formula and analyses (which most people, and me – and even some grad students I bet – struggle to comprehend), they provide evidence as to how institutional setup established in the past can affect the political prospects of those countries. I do not recommend you (and myself) to read the latter before taking more Economics and Econometrics courses; Why Nations Fail itself already offers a huge range of fascinating case studies that are more exciting than your high-school history textbook.

In case you want the simplest explanation, I would suggest reading an article written by Fareed Zakaria, titled ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracies‘. Published in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Zakaria provided a thought-provoking argument about the need to differentiate the concept of ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutional liberalism’ (or, in simpler terms, rules and legal regulations that protect individual civil liberties). He attributed that the problem of many newly emerging democracies these days – back in the 1990s, when this article was published – was that these polities paved way for populists and strongmen to seek popular legitimacy to justify their autocratic rule. Going back to the ‘democracy promotion’ mode by US government and its allies, we all came to consolidate the correlation between democracy and ballot boxes alone, all the while overlooking other sets of factors and variables. Here, Zakaria had prophesied his pessimistic trajectory of how such populists – or other political agitators – made use of ballot boxes, securing the widespread support of the existing electoral base, all in the name of justifying their strongman-style rule, or implementing other policies many had thought could be a ‘shot in the arm’, but instead ended up as ‘gunshots in the arm’. Without a certain mechanism in protecting individual civil liberties, democracies can literally become what the ancient Greeks called as ‘tyranny of the majority’. Thus there came the phenomenon of illiberal democracies, where parties or regimes in power make use of elections solely as their defining feature of democracy to consolidate their power and empower their supporters, largely at the expense of protection of civil liberties. I recommend you to read this article, given its (ongoing) relevance to the present contexts in global politics.

Lastly, what about the question of polarization? In a seriously insightful paper, titled ‘Democratic Careening‘, Dan Slater actually refuted the argument by several scholars that ‘democracy is collapsing’. Instead, he stated that ‘democracy can not collapse, but rather careen’ (perhaps as you can see from the Paint-drawn illustration above). Democracy, to some aspect, can become like a ‘warzone’ with two opposing sides intensely fighting against each other – either on the streets or in the legislature – over the competing notions of democracy. He emphasized, in particular, about horizontal accountability (rule of law, checks-and-balances between state institutions) and vertical accountability (political participation among the public). The big ‘danger’ that could cause the war-zone to occur, in this regard, is when leaders in power cause both these features to compete against – rather than complement – each other. This can be achieved by leaders either disproportionately enlarging their executive powers to the degree that they become almost personalized, or that they agitate for mass mobilization among the supporters to take to the streets when there is any ‘threat against their legitimacy’. While Slater only focused on the comparative analysis of Thailand and Taiwan, this argument can be further expanded to look into other countries. Let’s say, the Chavismo phenomenon in Venezuela, how Erdogan rallied his supporters to take to the streets in response to the ‘coup attempt’ (or so the media said?), or the exploitation of ethnic, religious, or social-based cleavages to the ruling powers’ advantage.

This writing can be further explored into a further work, but I would rather stop here, risking the boredom of Internet readers (especially in the age where people simply share articles without really reading them or even clicking the links). In summary, I would say that democracy – in spite of its problems – can be ‘nurtured’, only if there are strong institutional setups from the beginning which can provide checks and balances on elected leaders, and all the while respect people’s civil liberties. Democracies matter, but so do institutions and the principle of constitutional liberalism. If implemented immaturely, we will continue to see any existing weird phenomena resulting from ‘democratic’ processes in the future, and even more half-baked democracies. Democracy is not sinking, but it can be bent in lieu of the desires of the leaders in power. Thus, I would rather advocate for the idea of liberal democracy, rather than ‘democracy’ in itself alone.

In the words of Ronald Dworkin, “democracy is a substantive, not a merely procedural, ideal.”

 

NB: In case you want to have some more independent study about democracy, here are some useful sources that you can refer to.

Readings (only two first):

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail

Francis Fukuyama – Political Order and Political Decay

Datasets (about the quality of democracy):

Freedom House – not too frequently referred to in academic discourse, but very useful in media and public discussions as the tone is much easier to comprehend

Polity IV – more complicating, but more useful, and is mostly referred to in academic discourse (on a scale of -10 to 10, dictatorships are labelled with scores -6 to -10, democracies from 6 to 10, and hybrid regimes, or what you call as ‘illiberal democracies’, scored precisely in between)

 

Hope these references help.

Guest Post: In retrospect – Yudhoyono and Indonesia’s scrapped democracy

indonesian democracy

One of the many Twitter pictures trending in Indonesia’s media (Source: http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=901880)

 

By Edward Tanoto

This article is solely of the author’s opinion.

 

It was an intense hour for Indonesia. The bill proposed for regional government election was deliberated by the House of Representatives for approval. At first, it seemed to pose no significant worries for the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle. They have won the presidential race and the public seems to be ready to hear the good answer on better freedom in electing their local leaders. It was assumed to be a sure drift toward victory, until the Democratic Party decided to announce their 10 requirements of the reformed election system. But when their appeal was not taken seriously by the pro-direct election parliament members, they chose to walk out during the plenary session, sealing the fate. Losing the largest number of voices in the plenary session, the vote had a dramatic overkill of 226 to 135, the larger of which went to the decision to scrap regional leaders’ direct election. It signals a dark hour for democracy in Indonesia.

Immediately in its aftermath, many were quick to criticize the result. An overnight Twitter tag #ShameOnYouSBY gave the president, now in his final year, the global spotlight. 10,000 followers overnight came up to condemn the decision of the legislative. It portrays the Democratic Party as the bad guy and blame its leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for the fiasco. But, is this necessarily fair?

To shed some light, the 10 requirements postulated by the Democratic Party members are:

  1. The running regional candidates must be publicly tested for their integrity and capability
  2. Compulsory assessment on the cost efficiency of a regional election must be adhered to
  3. There must be control and limit of funds expended for the candidate’s campaign
  4. Accountability in the usage of campaign funds is required for each candidate
  5. Campaigning by money and vehicle propaganda is prohibited at all time
  6. Insulting and black propaganda is strictly prohibited
  7. There must be no involvement of the bureaucratic members
  8. No bureaucratic members can be displaced in the event of post-election
  9. Any post-election disputes must be settled
  10. Candidates must avoid violence instigated by their supporting parties’ decisions

(Source – in Bahasa Indonesia: http://news.detik.com/read/2014/09/25/231641/2701657/10/paripurna-kembali-dimulai-f-pd-ngotot-10-syarat-pilkada-langsung-masuk-opsi)

 

gerindra

Edhy Prabowo, a Gerindra member gesturing during the vote on the bill in the House of Representatives. PHOTO: AFP

 

The ignorance of the other parties toward its proposal further infuriated the Democratic Party members so much that they chose to walk out of the plenary session and abstain from voting. However, looking at the points in the proposal, one cannot help but wonder what reason these parties had for ignoring such important points. A new bill requires clear and just rules before being implemented. This is especially so in a young democratic nation like Indonesia, where loopholes in the legislation are readily misused. They need well defined laws and assessments to ensure the bill’s effectiveness. The failure to realize this reflects just how little the parties have learnt from past mistakes.

The oblivion exercised by the other parties may have infuriated the Democratic Party, that in the spur of the moment, they may have decided to walk out of the plenary session. But, this also means giving the sure win to the opponents as the Democratic Party members currently make up the largest share in national parliamentary seats. With a such dramatic loss of supportive voices, it is almost unsurprising for the vote to go in the opposition’s favor. Then, looking at it, the Democratic Party may not be the only one to blame. Other parties should have given more weight to what it is postulating before dismissing it. However, the impulsive decision of the Democratic Party also reflects possible underlying query – does it even wish for the bill to be accepted in the first place? If it truly did, it should have known better than to abstain from the vote. Another possible speculation is that it may be a personal vendetta toward Indonesia Democratic Party – Struggle after years of political rivalries between the two. Should this have clouded their judgment, a more pressing issue will thus be to consolidate relationships between parties. They should endeavor toward healthy competition and not let their past disputes impact their judgment.

However, the lasting impact that this will leave means a major setback to Indonesia’s democracy. The passage of this bill means the same political leaders – remnants from the past authoritarian Suharto’s regime – will still remain political elites rather than the people. It will shift the power back to the higher-ups as people become discouraged from making their opinions heard. It will reopen the trauma of being gripped by powerful conglomerates, and worse, amplify the possibility of political dynasties on a regional level, further dismissing the 16 years’ worth of democratic reforms since 1998. Is this what President Yudhoyono want to leave his office with? If not, then Indonesia will have a long way to go.

All said and done, the final decision will be drafted by the Constitutional Court. Toward that day, Indonesians and pro-democracy leaders must make up their mind on what they truly want out of their country – and how they will achieve it.

 

Edward Tanoto is an Indonesian student currently in his final year at St. Andrew’s Junior College, Singapore.

Building Palestinian Democracy, One Brick At A Time

rawabi

 

The story of Rawabi, the first eco-friendly planned city in Palestine, and how Bashar al-Masri, the mastermind behind the project, is – at his own unease – struggling to promote democracy and civic participation in a country already torn by Israel’s continued repression and a fragile, unstable authority.

Read the full article – released in May 2014 – in Foreign Policy.

 

Excerpt:

 

Masri and his associates are working feverishly to attract the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and other major technology companies. “We really want many of the same high-tech firms that are in Israel and Egypt and Jordan to come,” he says, his voice tinged with desperation. But convincing the tech giants that this is the right time to invest is easier said than done.

Their caution is understandable. The impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority is just one of the many complications that make Masri’s project seem utopian. Just take the problem of water. Israel controls the supply of water to the West Bank, and the Israelis have repeatedly delayed conclusion of an agreement that would enable the construction of a pipeline to supply Rawabi. That, in turn, has resulted in the repeated postponement of move-in dates for the city’s would-be residents.

Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power

citizen university

 

 

Beforehand, I’ve posted one TED talk about the uncontrolled inequities between the plutocrats and the commoners. And, here’s again another power-related one, which pretty much can explain about the previous video: ordinary people’s illiteracy, and blatant ignorance, of the importance of power. Given this rationale, it is why power – and much of the vacuum left by ignorance – is concentrated only among a handful elsewhere, not just in United States, but also across the world. Democracy, in sum, hasn’t been completely realized.

Eric Liu, a Seattle-based civics educator and also pioneer of Citizen University, wants to debunk the ongoing cycle, and provides one proof where civic engagement is possible, and thanks to globalization, can become a contagious ‘positive virus’ as well: cities. Cities, in his idea, can become great social laboratories to engineer changes for the sake of the people, particularly at a time when national governments mostly end up in deadlocks for partisan, stalled negotiations.

He offers some examples where we should learn:

1. The idea of ‘bike-friendly cities’ that kick-started in Copenhagen, Denmark, and spread to dozens of cities across the world

2. How Seattle led the initiatives of numerous major cities across the United States to set targets for reduction of carbon production; at a time when the country, overall, refused to participate in Kyoto Protocol

3. When national government in Washington, D.C., was highly paralyzed due to partisan conflicts of interests, it is instead local cities, towns, and lower-level administrative divisions that continued providing essential services for the people

4. How ‘participatory budgeting’ in Porto Alegre, Brazil, by which city dwellers decide together how much funds the city should be allocated for expenditure by sectors, spreads into numerous major cities across the planet

5. The rise of grassroots movements in China to oppose corrupt authorities at a local level, and the rate is rising

Learn more about this potential by tuning in to his TED talk below.

 

How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy

libya battle

 

 

When Muammar Qaddafi, then so-called the ‘Madman of Africa’, ruled Libya, this nation of nearly 6.5 million, despite brutal totalitarian rule and very strict control in all aspects of life, achieved unprecedented success as one of the richest, and most prosperous, in Africa. While dissident voices were crushed and government opposition was severely curtailed and tortured in underground prisons, literacy rate was nearly in its absolute terms. Healthcare was provided free for everyone, and its populace even received yearly bonuses from the government. It also has one of the world’s highest foreign exchange reserves, with the bulk worth more than 100 billion US$ stored safely in bank accounts across the globe, excluding their another sovereign wealth funds. Economy was highly booming, with numerous projects being implemented across the whole country. Infrastructure, in particular its irrigation, was fully functional.

All these hopes shattered when Arab Spring took the country by force. Preferring ‘freedom’ to ‘stability’, the country’s people, young and old, men and women, moderates and hardliners, all took their weapons to overthrow what they had deemed ‘four-decades of soul-deafening rule’. Everyone was looking for that voice, the opportunity for them to express themselves as they wished. They staked everything else for the sake of democracy, and for the sake of freedom.

Now, with Qaddafi’s rule coming to a tragic end, Libya is now at its own tatters. Democracy is partially achieved, but under a very dangerous cost: militia battles become a daily consumption for most of its populace. Paradoxically, and sadly enough, almost everyone was longing for his leadership, once again.

Read the full article in Bloomberg Businessweek to know more the fate of post-Qaddafi Libya.

 

Excerpt:

 

In the last few months, the Libyans have been finding out. Warring militias have destroyed large sections of Tripoli’s international airport with mortars, shoulder-launched missiles, rockets, and tanks. The fighting made the news again in July when a rocket or shell set a large oil depot on fire, sending clouds of choking black smoke over Tripoli. Shortly thereafter, 27,000 Libyans fled the fighting on foot in a single day, arriving as refugees in neighboring African countries. In just one week in July, according to a brief issued by the Soufan Group, a consultancy specializing in the Middle East, more than 60 people were killed in Benghazi, and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, and Canada have evacuated their diplomatic personnel.

Libyan oil production has declined to about 300,000 barrels a day, and a half-dozen prominent figures on the Libyan political scene, whose names had appeared in optimistic Western newspaper articles about the brave Libyans who opposed Qaddafi and fought for a more equal and democratic future, have been murdered. Their deaths have passed without any demonstrations or other significant forms of public notice inside Libya, a measure of how irrelevant the causes for which Libyans fought three years ago have become.

Libya’s economic future, once touted as the brightest in Africa, looks equally bleak. Western news sources around the time of Qaddafi’s death reported that the dictator had stashed tens of billions of dollars away in overseas accounts that the country desperately needed to pay its bills. After the dictator was toppled, the search began for his hidden personal fortune—an El Dorado of imagined gold that was built in part on the confusion between Qaddafi’s personal assets and state-controlled assets such as the LIA. This fortune was estimated in various publications to be from $70 billion to $100 billion and quickly gave rise to a cottage industry in which fortune hunters struck deals with representatives of Libya’s National Transitional Council to locate missing assets in return for 10 percent of the take.