Redefining Political Democracy

Sunday, October 5, 2008

By: M. Ajisatria Suleiman

There is nothing exciting about the upcoming Indonesia’s General Election of 2009. It is justified for the people to be pessimistic on its significance to the future of the country.

The scandal of Bank Indonesia bribery case, involving public-elected-legislators, is at the top of the iceberg, waiting to explode. Corruption Eradication Commission is finally making its move to bring corrupt members of the House of Representatives to justice. Once just a rumor, now it is gradually confirmed that certain member of parliaments are taking side-job as “project broker.” Meanwhile, various politicians define democracy only to the extent of political narcissism and celebration of popularity, as achievements and clear vision of leadership come behind in the race to enter public office. Even the General Election Commission and the Constitutional Court are under attack for its lack of consistency and judgment in determining political parties to be participating in the upcoming election.

Once, experts believed that the 2004 General Election was the decisive moment for the consolidation of democracy of Indonesia’s post-reform era, and 2009 should be embraced as the foundation of an established political culture. Unfortunately, considering these turmoil, Indonesian people will almost certainly have to wait longer. The question is then; do we still have the patience to believe that those days would come?

Being at the point of no return in applying liberal democracy following the reformasi era, we must convince ourselves to believe that political democracy will work in this country. However, putting too many expectations on political parties would be hopeless and effort-consuming, as the present evidences are showing. Therefore, it’s time to move on from the traditional approach of political-parties-centered democracy to other contemporary approach.

The notion of political parties as the intermediary between public interest and policy making, the forum for political articulation, and the representatives of the will of the people are yesterday’s concept. It has failed to accommodate the cultural and economic diversity of the country, and also has failed to determine their position in the relations between the state, market, and society. As a result, political parties are now acting only for their own interest and thus, defying the will of their constituents.

It’s time to move beyond the traditional political system and rule of law into what Jurgen Habermas described as “deliberative democracy.” Under this theory, the purpose of democracy is not to successfully influence others to meet certain objectives and policies, as set by traditional theory of politics by the concept of “majority rules,” but to reach consensus and mutual understanding between the actors or participants of democracy.

As a consequence, public decisions must involve every elements of the society who later would bear the impact and effect, and such involvement should occur in a public discourse, free from any dominant power. This theory detaches from the traditional approach which regards the interest of the people has already been represented and embodied in the public officials, since they are elected by the people. Creating a genuine public participation, which people not only be able to elect their representatives but also influence the policy affecting them, is the result of deliberative democracy. It, in effect, undermines the importance of the role of political parties and provides the public alternative to channel their aspiration.

Delivering into practice will be the foremost challenge to make this theory work. Law Number 10 of 2004 has already established the most important legal basis, though broadly described, for the public participation in legislation making. Moreover, after years of lobbying, NGO-driven bill on freedom of information was also finally enacted. Freedom of information is another basic legal framework to promote deliberative democracy, as it provides the society to access information utilized to generate discourse and reach consensus.

While various legislations and polices has also been formulated to ensure genuine public participation, the real power of deliberative democracy is embedded upon civil society, acting as the new power representing the people which can highly empower public discourse. They, whether in the form of NGO, religious community, academic society, or mass media, bear the responsibility to educate the public concerning current public issues and facilitate them to reach consensus. The discourse can by conducted in any forum, from internet mailing list to the corner at a food stall, creating the so-called public sphere.

Similar to any other theory, deliberative democracy is still searching for the perfect model of implementation. Structural inequality becomes the biggest constraints of deliberative democracy, or any model for that matter, because creating a dominant-free discourse in the current world of various political and corporate power competing to place their interest in the policy-making process is just a utopia. Even there are civil societies confronting its nature, serving corporate interest instead of the society. Therefore, research must be intensified to learn from best practices of other country, or even Indonesia’s local region that has successfully applied this approach and has managed to correlate the procedure to the welfare of its people.

In practice, policy may not have to be reached in consensus, as upheld by the philosophical foundation, but the effort to involve the public in policy-making and decision is a compulsory and serves as an entry point to create a better political environment for Indonesian democracy, a system we should believe in.

Posted by Fiat Justitia at 8:44 PM

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