10 THESES ON POLITICAL ELITE’S RESPONSE TO DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION: A Lesson from Indonesia

By Daniel Sparinga[1]

Political Elites’ Response to Democratic Transition in Indonesia: The Ten Theses

· There are at least ten primary theses which could be used to describe the main tendencies in how political elites in this country responded to democratic transition. The objective from the description is mainly to see how democratic transition which among other relates to the phenomenon of elite formation and power relation between the elites and the masses carry through influences on the future of democracy in Indonesia. With such objective, it is hoped that we could garner a better understanding on various possible explanations on the roles of political elites in determining the future of democracy in Indonesia.

· True democratic transition everywhere else resulted in a new formation process for political institutions which centered on systematic efforts with open characteristics to rearrange inter-institution, civil society and the state relationships, as well as the elite and the masses with the main objective of presenting a power relationship which fulfills the criteria for a democratic modern state.

First Thesis:

Democratic transition in Indonesia empowering traditional elites

· Transition in this country, in many things is instead empowering the structure of the traditional elites rather than setting them aside. Furthermore, most of them managed to convert the authority to execute political engagement effectively within the public sphere. Religious and cultural orthodoxy are two traditional authoritarian sources which are often used to enliven the public roles of traditional elites in societal and state spheres.

Second Thesis:

Modern Elites failed to build a participatory relationship based on political accountability

· The formation of modern elites is in turn marked by the absence of adequate infrastructure support apart from the basis of party bureaucracy which is less than rooted and a disassociated relationship with the masses. Wide disbelief of the masses against the modern elites is mainly caused by their failure to execute political transformation based on participatory relationship which provides the foundations of political accountability between the elites and the masses.

Third Thesis:

The fights over various political resources which is manipulated by the elites as ideological fight

· The debate between political elites on a particular issue is marked by the superficial mix of ideological battlefield fights and political struggle. The elites’ manipulation over the two themes caused the occurrence of an alienation process which surfaced disaffiliation and, in a more serious form, disintegration among the masses as an impact of non-formation of objective awareness over their true collective identity.

Fourth Thesis:
The absence of modern state principles blurs the boundaries of public and private spheres

· Democratic teachings dictate the separation of state authority jurisdiction and society. The absence of modern state principles based on democratic teachings caused the blurring of the boundaries between public and private spheres. In the eight years transition process, there is a tendency between the two to exceed the authoritative boundaries or did not execute the obligation that is a must for each authority.

Fifth Thesis:
Combination of political patronage and technocracy from the Elites limits the people’s political participation

· Even though it’s very clear that most political elites claimed to be representatives of important elements in civil society, most of them are reluctant to position themselves as part of the power which lives in minds of the common people. As a result, most political elites placed themselves as free-floating elites whose social placements are far from the masses. Furthermore, their political ideas are colored by elitism: people are seen as not the capability and sophistication to understand the problems that are being debated. Even though they have quite a progressive view on many issues, most of them are very reluctant to adopt participatory approach – a view which put participation on a pedestal but nevertheless rejected the involvement of the masses in the process of the creation of public policies.

Sixth Thesis:
The Paradox of the Elites’ Position and Social Changes

· When discussing about the state, the political elites placed themselves as part of the people. Meanwhile, when discussing about civil society, they consider those who are outside of their circles to be the people. This very peculiar social location for some explained how strong the tendency to reject changes coming from below, from the grassroots undercurrent, from the common people. While they speak in ‘the language of the educated’, they appeared to have inadequate provision to speak further than just using jargons. Their understanding on the basic idea of social reforms and transformation as the core of democratic transition generally revolves around rhetorical language. Almost no full discussions touching on the substance and the implications on real political life occurred. While they placed themselves in the center of change, they alone were unprepared to become the center for the growth of brilliant alternative ideas.

Seventh Thesis:
The expansion of the people’s political participation hindered by the narrow preconception of the elites about democracy which is limited on procedural aspects

· While some of the elites appeared to fail in referring to wider democratic concepts, others refer to an even narrower preconception, that of democracy marked by functioning parties, elections, and parliament. Nothing more than that! The narrow preconception of democracy failed to provide a space for the practice of “direct individual political participation” which is often summarized in civil liberties concept. Their understanding on such political participation could be seen through attitudes which undermine the opportunity for the masses to obtain basic political rights to be involved in the making of important political decisions. The dominant idea surrounding the theme is generally colored by the belief that the majority of the people are unprepared to accept democracy. There are some clear signals which show their preference on what is called “segmented democracy” – a preconception which placed the elitist elements in society as the center of ideas and change. In contrast, they saw the guarantee for the practice of direct individual political participation” to only result in what is often called, in various opportunities, with the term “too much democracy” – a term which only represents the view that the voice of the majority only reflects euphoria and will result in chaos.

Eighth Thesis:
Political culture tends to become conservative because the elites failed to push for a contest of democratic ideas and to defend a hegemonic state idea

· Even though there is a general belief that political development in Indonesia after the New Order indicated the development of a civil society, there is actually small number of evidence which supported the view that strategic elements in society could provide an immediate breakthrough which means an opportunity for the development of a more pluralistic society, more democratic. It could be concluded that epistemologically, most of the elites of society have a role in the state’s political style and because of it lacks a meaningful challenge to the dominant ideas produced or reproduced by the state. Furthermore, there is a clear tendency which can be seen that they are maintaining the old political culture which tends to see the truth from a single perspective and overwhelming others (monolithic and hegemonic). Such position upheld state hegemony as the center and pivot of authority instead of observing it as something that is diverse and permeating to society, and as something that is “available there”.

Ninth Thesis:
There are three main perspectives on democracy among the elite: indigenous democracy, doctrinal democracy, and contextual democracy (1)

· There are at least three main perspectives on democracy which develops among the elites in Indonesia.

· The first perspective believed that democracy in Indonesia should have as much as possible adopted indigenous Indonesian ideas (indigenous democracy). Proponents of this perspective consider that “Western Liberal democracy does not fit with the character and personality of Indonesians”. Even though there is a tendency to be reluctant in blatantly rejecting Western democracy because of concerns of being perceived as not much different from the New Order’s official view, essentially they view the need for Indonesia to find and develop a political format in line with the mores of Indonesians. In this perspective, there is a belief that communal and cooperative values which are reflected in the principles of mutual consultation are the basic pillar of the construction. Even though it is quite unclear how the issue will be implemented into democracy in Indonesia, basically the proponents of the perspective believed in the idea which view the state as an ideal representation of society’s will.

Ninth Thesis:
There are three main perspectives on democracy among the elite: indigenous democracy, doctrinal democracy, and contextual democracy (2a)

· The second perspective wanted democracy in Indonesia to as much as possible colored by particular values, mainly Islam, which is considered to be the religion of the majority in this country. Rejection of Western democracy is mainly pushed by the belief that such form of democracy has a more secular tone. Rejection on the separation of secular and religious issues is viewed as being contrary to Islam. Nevertheless, it is too simplistic to say that it means there is a uniformity of demands on how Islam should be used as political foundation. Even though most proponents of this perspective rejected, or at least stated their undesirability, to develop a religious state due to various reasons, but the tendency to turn to Islam as the doctrinal democracy apt to be developed in Indonesia can be said to be prominent today.

Ninth Thesis:
There are three main perspectives on democracy among the elite: indigenous democracy, doctrinal democracy, and contextual democracy (2b)

· There are at least three dominant variants in this perspective.

· First, there is a view which imagined the presence of a political practice colored by religious values through figures of authorities.

· Second, there is a view which imagined the presence of political institutions (including judicial) which are based upon the teachings, or at least having an Islamic tone. This second variant is relatively under the surface outside a more limited Islamic community circles because they are stereotyped with the idea of an Islamic state – an idea which is often stigmatized as an anti-democratic one.

· Third, the view which blatantly fights for the presence of an Islamic Caliphate as an ideal form of Indonesian political system to replace democracies viewed as anti-Islam.

· The third perspective believed in democracy as a universal value. Because of this, the basic model of democratic ideas developed by the proponents of this perspective has no difference with democratic understandings contained in text books or experience of Western countries. Nevertheless, proponents of this ideology believed that there is an opportunity to conduct democratic contextualization through the participation of local, even particular, characteristics for the development of democracy in Indonesia. Such belief is based upon the reality that the form of democracy which developed in the United States, Japan, India or Korea, for instance, each possessed unique elements within their democratic systems. The subscribing elites of the third perspective assumed that the prerequisites for the integration of particular and local values into democracy are placed on the belief that the aforementioned could not erode the essence of universal democratic values. In other words, the integration of particular and local issues must strengthen universal values of democracy.

Tenth Thesis:
While the elites highlighted democracy as a procedure, the masses highlighted democracy only as a result

· There is a basic difference on how democracy as a tradition be constructed by the elites and the masses on one side and democracy as constructed in its official teaching. Political elites in power, specifically those who become dominant political actors, tend to define democracy as “procedure, mechanism, and protocol to obtain authority with political legitimacy from the people”.

In contrast, generally speaking, society constructed democracy as “the answer to the question on how the issues of justice and prosperity would be settled by their leaders”. An important element in a true democracy which is not present in such construction is the public’s participation. Those who operated this definition possess a strong orientation on the result and in many situations ignore the process. Subscribers to such democracy, which are most of the members of society in this country, hang their belief and hope on change for the better in their leaders alone instead of actively and directly placing themselves as the most important part of a process of change. The result is very clear, a democracy which alienated themselves.


[1] The author is professor of sociology in the department of Sociology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Airlangga University, is also currently Vice Chairman of KID (Indonesian Community for Democracy).

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