Wild oligarchs and changing politics ahead of 2014

Scholars, researchers and even journalists tend to be confused when they have to describe the democratic process in Indonesia after 1998. The political transition in post-Soeharto Indonesia has been running without incident.

However, some say Indonesia’s uncertainties have lasted too long, claiming that the remnants of the Soeharto regime, for example, have clung to power in the face of multiple challenges.

What is very clear is that since 1998, the military, bureaucrats, Soeharto’s oligarchs and other newcomers have been trying to occupy the center of the political process.

All speak of democracy, use the structures of democratic politics and the rule of law. But, the process has not upgraded the quality of democracy itself.

Indonesia still stands in the first rank of the most corrupt countries in the world. Money politics work as the main principle behind legal and political activities.

Under these circumstances, people still have to go to the polls to choose those who fill the political structure.

Several questions emerge. What is democracy in this context? Why aren’t democratic elections producing good leaders? Who actually controls the power at the central point of politics?

Jeffrey Winters answered those questions in part in his book Oligarchy, which focused on Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia.

What he wrote about Indonesia can help us understand the establishment and the dynamics of the Soeharto period.

Winters vividly described the establishment of the material foundations of oligarchy. Winters said the power resources and the defense of wealth were the material foundations of oligarchy.

These are also the root of all evils when we answer questions such as why politics work unpredictably, why the power game is evil game and why democracy has a paradoxical face.

During the Soeharto period, politics was dominated by oligarchs, with Soeharto as the patron, according to Winters. “Sultanistic oligarchy” is how he described Soeharto’s 32-year rule.

But how does sultanistic oligarchy work in post-Soeharto Indonesia? Did it even survive reform? If not, what kind of political-economic power has emerged to dominate Indonesian politics?

The structure of oligarchy in Indonesia has not changed, although oligarchs have changed their work pattern and methods of survival.

Megawati Soekarnoputri won the election in 1999, not only because of ideology, but also because the rich, like Arifin Panigoro, supported her.

Adhie Massardie, the spokesman of former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, said that Gus Dur’s fall was caused partly by a lack of money.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was no one before 2004. He was not one of the richest people in the country, but he got their support and won the elections in 2004 and 2009.

Those who hold a major amount of capital while at the same time holding political interest are called oligarchs. Soeharto`s oligarchs were countable and measurable.

The oligarchs after 1998 become wilder, migrating from one political group to another depending on the situation and their economic interests.

In this context, it will be complicated to make a calculation about who will be the next president in 2014. Guesses cannot be shaped on parties, ideology or mass support. The key is in the hands of wild oligarchs.

Wildness has turned the oligarchs into cartels. Like an oligarchy, a cartel is also born of patron-client system.

The control of Indonesian politics after Soeharto is more likely to rest in the hands of a cartel than an oligarchy. Cartels create political coalitions and minimize the space for its enemies to win in the political competitions.

The sporadic movement of oligarchs is a work pattern of cartel. They join the political parties or play the role of “dalang” (puppeteers) behind the scenes, design political coalitions, set the course of the administration, castrate presidential prerogatives and even arrange for legislation, as Constitutional Court chief Mahfud MD has been accused. Such an oligarchy is better understood as a cartel. It changes like a chameleon.

However, its fundamental structure is still oligarchical. They have just changed their modus vivendi as well as their modus operandi to become an “oligarchic cartel”.

They change into new political-economical organism that appears as cartel and oligarchy at the same time.

Unfortunately, they will play the most powerful role in determining who will be the next president in 2014.

*Boni Hargens, The writer is political science lecturer at the University of Indonesia and a graduate student at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Source : The Jakarta Post

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