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Jennie at Jakarta Post Sept 22 2011

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by Jennie S. Bev

Indonesia is a democracy, isn’t it? Some academics and pundits posit that it is a democracy by form, but not by substance. Others argue that it is an oligarchy and the rest say that it is a young democracy with a dark shadow of historical authoritarianism. The next presidential election will take place in 2014 and that in the United States will be in 2012. 

While it is a good time to start observing and comparing the two, what do we particularly need to observe? And before it’s too late, what can we do to improve civic participation and people’s deliberation in the election and voting processes? According to Stanford University’s Communications professor James S. Fishkin, achieving “deliberative democracy” refers to bringing every voter to a condition in which they think through issues presented to them and that they themselves bring up. To achieve this, participation, political equality and deliberation play important roles.



Of course, the traditional view of what constitutes a “democracy” mainly includes free and fair elections, active participation, protection of human rights and rule of law. Achieving all these does not, however, automatically make a state democratic. The degree and quality of influences and elements within each of the characteristics matter significantly. 

The problem with every political campaign in a so-called “democracy” is the distortions made in shaping images and opinions, and these eventually affect voting decisions. With the proliferation of real-time Web-based and mobile applications, ICT (information and communications technology) have closed the gap between political candidates and constituents. This may create an illusion of the measurable will of the masses due to the behavioral elements of a virtual relationship. Technologically-enhanced notions of liberty can be more manipulative than real life ideas, which is dangerous.

A popular idea may not mean more than it is simply a popular myth. For instance, many American voters think that “clean” coal is cleaner than gasoline emissions. In fact the opposite is the case: gasoline is cleaner than “clean” coal. In the 2008 campaign, the issue of Barack Obama’s religion was blown up out of proportion by his opponents. Recently, the whereabouts of his birth certificate created heated debates.

How can Indonesian voters learn from their American counterparts? Can they, considering the majority’s relatively lower level of education, educate themselves in a manner that they can identify direct and indirect “manipulative” political maneuvers? Without better identification, Indonesian voters are just as easy prey for political publicists and image consultants. 

Asymmetrical psychological warfare is apparent in Indonesian party politics along with the usage of surveys and polls intended to shape opinions. Some incidents are fabricated in a manner that educated voters can easily spot. The emergence of religious symbols, for instance, ranging from wearing certain “pious” attire to behaving in certain ways, has been an Indonesian political cliché. Looking pious and certain appellations sell, regardless of actual behavior.

Both American and Indonesian democracy, at this point, may have surpassed the milestone of “democracy by elites”, in which the power to influence policies is in the hands of a small group of people with special and specific interests, hence the term “rule by minorities”, as popularized by Robert Dahl. Indonesian voters have been showing restlessness and distrustfulness toward their representatives, as is observable in the increased ICT usage in political debates. 

Prof. Fishkin further categorized the four theories of democracy, in which four principles are prevalent in various degrees as shown by the swinging pendulum: political equality, deliberation, mass participation and non-tyranny. Four theories that are based upon these four principles are: competitive democracy, elite democracy, participatory democracy and deliberative democracy. 

He argued that in a competitive democracy, the will of the people is no more than an imaginary goal as the reality is the political elites only think about their own welfare and people vote for them due to the so-called “lesser evil among the candidates.” In a competitive democracy, having no loyalty to a committed goal is rampant, which is observable throughout President SBY’s second term, where his acquisition of political capital has been obvious. 

Thus, in a competitive democracy, the people still have difficulties in making meaningful deliberation. In a participatory democracy, we can expect to see more consultative relationships between the elites and the people.

In a deliberative democracy, the people are motivated to participate by thoughts and by actions on an individual level. Every person has a clear understanding of what is lacking and needing serious attention and oversight. The role of ICT, thus, has been promoted to more than a purveyor of information but an instrument that enlightens. 

At last, politics is about more than being popular with a gazillion Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Politics is about the people: their freedom, their involvement, and their continued involvement in the process of governing. Let’s observe the US election in 2012 and Indonesia in 2014.[]

The Jakarta Post, September 22, 2011

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