Sunday, April 13, 2008


1. One of the most important achievement of Reformasi has, so far, been the vibrant development of an active and autonomous civil society (CS) in Indonesia’s social and political scenes. The surge of civil society organizations (CSOs) coming out from various elements has made it possible for Indonesian CS to play a crucial role as a dynamic force which counterbalances the state power. Thus mass-based organizations, NGOs, professional associations, business groups, worker unions, media, etc. have been flourishing unprecedentedly in the country’s political history, thanks primarily to the opening of political spaces and the conducive social and political environment which are considered as the main foundation upon which a strong, workable and durable democratic polity can be established. One could say that the development and pivotal role of CS during the past ten years after Reformasi in the country has been widely accepted as a matter of social and political facts or even necessity. This due particularly to the fact that such pertinent and widely shared key issues as human rights protections, bureaucratic reform, good governance, substantive political participation, corruption eradication, as well as people’s welfare improvement have yet to find solutions that are favorable to the increasingly critical public. Moreover, the significance of SC’s role has also been directly and indirectly permeated by the fact that the existing political society (PS) and its organizations, in the forms of political parties and the parliament, have been increasingly suffering from public legitimacy, and plagued by both credibility and image problems as well, due to its failures in delivering promised targets and its dismal performances. As shown by dozens of opinion surveys in the past two years, the public has been dismayed by both political parties and its representatives in the Parliament for their alleged incompetence and self-serving attitudes which are a far cry from the people’s expectations. In the more popular political parlance in Indonesia today, the existing PS has been less as a part of problem solving, but mor as one of the problems that could hinder the process of political reform. It is within this uncertain and rather messy post-Reformasi political context that CS and its organizations have, unwittingly, kept its role as a “parallel institution” to PS, to borrow the Czech leading activist Vaclav Benda‘s notion of “parallel polis”, a role that they used to play in the former New Order’s authoritarian system!.

2. In another field, namely the CS and Government relations in the post-Reformasi, it seems that they have changed considerably toward more or less productive ones, in the sense that both of them have been able to establish much better communications and co-operations. This has been the most striking political feature that marked the current condition and that of the New Order, in which the antagonistic relations between CS and the government became the latter’s distinct character. Of course, some “contestable spaces“ remain exist between the two which could become sources of antagonisms between them, primarily in such contentious issues as corruptions, human rights, good governance, etc. And yet, even in this case there is a qualitative difference between the two regimes, in the sense that such antagonisms that exist currently are based not upon some fundamental and, therefore, irreconcilable principles. Instead, they would emerge more from different perception with regard to the degree of achievement and expectation in attaining the goals. So it is safe to say that CS organizations, particularly those mass-based organizations, business and professional groups have since been having rather positive relations with those democratically elected post-Reformasi governments enabling them to forge cooperations in such fields as community development, cooperatives movements, education, health care, SME empowerment projects and so on. These have been carried out with high degree of autonomy and without fear of being co-opted by the government or forced to submit to its political agenda like in the past. The government, in the mean time, has increasingly felt more comfortable and self-confident working together with CS organizations in order to solve social problems, including those having significant political implications. In many cases, government agencies both at the central and local level have, gradually, been accustomed to seek inputs from CS organizations and open public fora that make it possible for the latter to criticize the former’s policy formulations.

3. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is a high time for Indonesian CS to critically evaluate its role and function in the Reformasi era, including its relationship with both the government and PS. It is true that much has been done by CS organizations in the past ten years in the process of transformation of Indonesian political system from an authoritarian to democratic one. Yet, it seems to me that in the future Indonesian CS and organizations need to focus more on strengthening its oversight capacity to the government, especially in such key issues as bureaucracy reform and economic recovery programs aimed at the grass-roots population. The role of mass media is paramount in disseminating best practices in the area of good governance besides its conventional watch-dog function. In this respect, for the CS organizations to become more effective in this endeavor, it needs to improve its quality in the fields of organizational managements, human resources, and social capitals. As far as the relationship between CS and PS is concerned, it must be improved by continuous efforts in the area of trust building between the two and to strife in working together in the fields of legislation, oversight, and information dissemination in society. In my view, CS can actually become an excellent source for expertise and skills that are badly needed by the Parliament members and political parties in their efforts to improve their quality. Conversely, it is also crucial for the CS and its organizations to be more attuned to the work of legislative branches and mechanisms that exist therein, otherwise many best ideas and asirations that arise from CS cannot be channeled to the PS and put into actions simply because the former’s lack of technical capacities and understanding of the existing mechanism in the political institutions.

4. Futhermore, the relationship between CS and PS which has currently been colored by the “trust deficiency” would bring about negative consequences to Reformasi’s short and medium objectives of successful transition from authoritarianism and of consolidation of democratic forces, as well as its long term objectives of strengthening democratic foundations and of sustaining a strong, workable democratic system in Indonesia. As one of the main forces in the democratic movements, Indonesia CS is arguably still in its formative stage and, as such, still faces tremendous challenges originated from both internal and external sources. Unlike the case of PS, Indonesian CS is much more fluid and fragile due to its historical background and social bases upon which it has been evolving. It is true that compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesian CS at this present juncture could claim of having a higher degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the state and be able to exercise its basic rights more fully, nevertheless, it remains highly unstable because its economic foundation remains less developed and its institutional and capacity development are also lacking compared to its counterparts in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. Also the heterogeneity of Indonesian society is incomparable to that of other ASEAN countries, including that of Malaysia, which has necessitated distinct approaches and models in its future development along the democratic path. This pluralistic nature of Indonesian social fabrics would, in turn, affect its inherent solidity and strength among members of CS when it is facing serious crisis situations.

5. Finally, Indonesian CS as a dynamic and determinant factor in building Indonesian political and social system in the future remains facing serious internal and external challenges. First is there is a manifest communalist tendency prevalent among CS organizations which may obfuscate the growth of democratic spirit and of the notion of citizenship, which both are still fragile. There is a strong temptation to resort into “identity politics” as an instrument for attaining social, economic, and political interests in a short term basis. The so-called “horizontal conflicts” that have occurred in past ten years throughout the country have been involving many CS organizations and in many cases the latter has become active actors for instigating the conflicts. Second is the decline of the public solidarity as the result of the failure of economic system to provide equitable distribution of income, lower unemployment, guarantee social safety nets for the downtrodden people, and enable people to invest on human capital. This will result in the demise of public spiritedness, the sense of belongingness and public responsibility, which are all sine qua non for a healthy and active CS in any modern society. The notion of public life, which is pivotal for the establishment of sustainable democratic system, will be eroded and subsequently weakened. Third is the tendency of over-politicization of CS due to the weakness of the existing PS and its organizations as well as the erosion of trust between the former and the latter. Over-politicization would permeate short-sighted view of CS members in dealing with social, cultural and political problems and prevent institutional and capacity building in the political realm. Fourth is the possibility of government intervention to the CS for short term political interests. The current proliferation of CS organizations is quite natural and healthy for the country and society. However, it is also potentially vulnerable to conflicts originated from the multiplicity of interests which will open for any kind of interventions. The government could and would try, from time to time, to manipulate CS for its own interests which could have negative effects on CS development in general. The rule-based interactions between the government and CS are, therefore, something that must be carefully and continuously maintained.




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