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  • Writer's picturePranoto Iskandar

Unveiling corrosive democracy: A viewfrom the pit

Recently, a communal feast (slametan) boasted as “the Banquet of 1000 Cauldrons” (or Ngaliwet 1000 Kastrol) was held in Cianjur’s grandiose main square to celebrate the dramatic arrest of its beguiling mayor with his youthful image. On a superficial level, it appears to be a regular celebration; another expression of the peoples’ liberation from the bondage of two consecutive corrupt administrations. As one can easily discern from multiple news outlets, this arrest disrupted one of many sprawling political dynasties-in-the-making that are currently on the march as a result of a haphazard scheme of regional autonomy.

As important as it is, however, there is another plausible interpretation, less visible to many unobservant eyes. Indeed, Cianjur’s slametanis an important telltale of the current state of Indonesia’s democracy. If one is lucky enough to be able to read the event correctly, this could be an opening to address some deficiencies in our democratic model. In other words, the people’s celebration (slametan) should be read as an indicative of the dark side of the almost three decades’ process of disenfranchisement. Specifically, this unwieldy liberalization has been marred by the absence of a clear agenda regarding a path forward.

In his magisterial Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia, declaring the broader context of Indonesia’s democratic experiment a success, Donald Horowitz, the world’s foremost constitutional design and ethnic conflict scholar, perceptively noted that the survival of Indonesian democracy is attributable to its “distinctive path.” This distinctiveness is no doubt a direct result of the unanticipated fall of the New Order regime, a surprising downfall which caught everyone off guard.

As the history has unfolded, it is clear though that there is no clear agenda with regard to the further translation of Reformasi’s many lofty goals.[6]So far, there has been no effort devoted to clearing up the confusion. The implication is that everyone is unscrupulously putting their heart and soul in a self-anointing contestation in being the most ardent, if not the only, supporter of “demokrasi Pancasila.” Whatever “demokrasi Pancasila” means, it has become something that unites a ragtag bunch who had only one thing in mind, to be the only legitimate mouthpiece of the emerging, supposedly democratic order.

Interesting to note, this lack of clarity feeds into the thinking of Irfan Awwas, a one-time Abu Bakar Ba’asyir protégé, who came to an absurd conclusion that there is a constitutional necessity for the infusion of a more Islamism in an effort to strengthen the Pancasila-based democracy. On a grassroots level, this idea has acquired a life of its own as it has been translated into a variety of Syariah-inspired regional laws. Supposedly, this is sufficient to explain why we seem eternally mired in the category of low-quality democracy. Given the absence of a national will to flesh out the further details which has led us to continue on auto-pilot, it is unrealistic to expect our democracy to go beyond the level of mere sustenance.

As a result, it is necessary to pause and question whether our low-quality democracy can survive the long term. One of many ways to answer this question is by connecting the dots that are deeply buried at the very bottom of our practice of democratic life. In so doing, I am hopeful that the resultant picture the grander confusion at the national level.

Now, it is time to go back to the nagging question of slametanin the self-proclaimed conservative Islamic city of Cianjur.

To start with, it is necessary to recognize the symbolic function of slametanas restoring the unity of any given society. Admitting this function provides us an opportunity to broach this event as something inviting manipulation of an unsuspecting populous. As my many sources have confirmed, it is precisely what happened with this people’s celebration. So much so, it is another open secret that everyone who happened to be on the area to go around for a day or two with that hard-to-find “real” free lunch and possibly more.

Surprisingly or not, the mere fact that the un-Islamic slametanis still accepted in a society that supposedly in the far-right spectrum is another example confirming that the prominent role of religion in Indonesian politics has been an exaggeration. Evidently, this event is a willful collaborative black box between a fallen religious teacher (ustād) and an aspiring contender for the highest office in town. It is fair enough, therefore, to claim that religion is an all-exclusive big boys’ game that excludes everyone but the religious grandees themselves. In this case and in many other cases, as many locals know too well, religious interpretation is available to the highest bidder. The emperor has no clothes!

It is quite confusing when many, if not all of the participants whom I asked are indifferent to any factors that have contributed to this celebration. For many of them, to no one’s surprise, the degenerate act of asking bribery is a rightful act and, thus, acceptable given the enormous efforts that the mayor has invested to earn the office. The story gets even more complicated when we factor in the disinterested responses of the rural population of Cianjur who believe it marks the end of the infrastructure building in their neglected region.

Contrary to the impassioned activists who featured prominently in the newspapers, the reigning political climate is so-far a matter of indifference. As far I know, the indifference of the general public toward any available political process is incontrovertibly filled with apathy. This is the very reason that why it takes the (ad hoc) Anti-Corruption Agency (KPK), an unelected body that has no emotional connection to the concerned populace, to hold elected officials liable for any wrongdoing in the first place. Needless to say, the apprehended mayor is not just the biological son of the previous mayor, but, more importantly, was arrested for the well-established practice that he inherited from his predecessor. To be blunt, in the eyes of the electorates, the system is simply not worth the trouble.

From the long-term interest perspective, our addiction to the intervention by KPK presents another troubling matter. As a matter of institution building, the KPK is an extemporaneous institution that should cease to exist once we have completed the institutional reform that put back the supremacy of the periodical voting in the heart of our check and balance mechanism. Unfortunately, the current political reality has left us no choice but to keep KPK and its kin as indispensable for our democracy to function. Clearly, this should serve us as an unambiguous signal that yields an alarming diagnosis of the possible direction for our democracy might be heading. Should we pay no heed to this subtle warning, as my five-year old niece put it: Why the hell are we regularly visiting the ballot box?

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