Disappointments of the Governed

The Jakarta Post | Opinion | Tue, August 05 2014, 10:28 AM

Many have praised the integrity of the recent presidential election. Journalists, experts and scholars have all pointed out the exceptional rate of participation, the high degree of transparency and the role of volunteers in safeguarding the vote-counting process.

Valuable lessons can be drawn by comparing the success of the Indonesian electoral system with that of equivalent countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Many of these comparisons, however, fail to account for the reactions of disappointed voters.

During the last election, high voter turnout was closely related to public enthusiasm and the collective emotions. There are constructed expectations and activities that have produced a particular relationship between government and the people.

Understanding them may help us proceed with understanding the disappointments of some voters.

We generally see democracy as the government of, by and for the people, as our ancient Greek philosophers taught us.

This formulation focuses on the contractual agreement between the ruler and the ruled, or in other words, between those who govern and those who are governed. Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century talked about the habit of obedience, which naturally presents itself; for one party to obey there must be another party that is obeyed.

Yet democracy today is no longer about the government of, by and for the people, let alone about the linear relationship between obeying and being obeyed. It is far too simplistic to talk only about the contractual agreement between the ruler and the ruled. Instead, democracy should be imagined as the politics of the governed.

Norms of democracy today reject the notion that only certain persons are worthy of entry into the governing class due to high levels of wisdom and virtue relative to the rest of the population. Instead, democracy is composed of the contestations and agreements that occur daily not only between the governed and those governing, but most importantly between the governed.

A paradox results from this development. On the one hand, as active participants of the political system, individuals expect civic responses to be grounded in universal standards of rights, freedoms, equality and respect.

On the other hand, the particularities that create individual identity and more importantly, the motivations to engage in lived political practices, demand differences in treatments. Both situations are liberating and empowering for all actors and naturally fuel the maintenance of democracy.

Indeed modern democracy is both universal and particular.

The tension between the universal idea of civic nationalism based on individual freedoms and rights irrespective of ethnicity, religion, language or cultural background and the need for flexible applications of laws to account for the specific needs of diverse groups is precisely what creates disappointment in democracy — because of this paradox disappointments occur, are accepted and demand governmental responses.

First of all, let us not forget that the presidential electoral system in Indonesia ensures that at least two candidates will be competing in the election. We should also bear in mind that the multi-party system will consequently result in two party coalitions to support the two candidates.

A match race between the final two candidates and comparable electoral counts is therefore unavoidable.

Examining the process from the perspective of our lived democracy today entails more than an analysis of process or a forecasting of certain political and electoral outcomes.

Rather, it must include understanding how voters negotiate their universal and the particular expectations.

During the campaign the collective embrace of universal ideas pertaining to freedoms and equal rights was easily observed.

Both candidates aimed for change and progress for Indonesia; poverty eradication; access to education; healthcare and affordable housing; as well as the recognition and protection of speech freedoms and religious freedoms.

Citizens went to the polls with the hope that their vote would bring them closer to realizing these universal ideals, creating a perfect, normative case for how people regard citizenship; an entitlement to universal freedoms supported by the right to vote for representatives protected by he government.

At the same time, people also voted as members of particular communities that come into being with or without the consent of individuals within those communities. Voting as Jakartans, for example, voters do not carry the normative burden of being ethically universal.

Rather they are identifiable, classifiable and describable by specific empirical and behavioral criteria — such as using the busway or spending the weekend in the mall. In this sense they fix certain expectations to their chosen government.

While responding to the result of the recent election, a similar tension between universal and particular ideals occurred. Supporters of both the winning and the losing team demanded fairness and justice.

On the winning side, calls for fairness and justice could be seen in the ways people demanded that the scientific method and the transparency of the vote-counting process be respected.

On the losing side, allegations of systematic and massive fraud were deployed as supporters strove to uphold the same ideas of justice and fairness.

While both reactions were normatively similar, we cannot ignore the fact that these claims were also inherently particular; each relied heavily on the aspirations related to differing circumstantial backgrounds and the ways the result of the election was perceived.

In this regard, disappointments are not disjunctures in the process of democratization in Indonesia. Rather, they embody the truth that democracy in Indonesia concerns the politics of the governed.

They arise because people embrace universal ideals of freedoms and rights, while at the same time, an appreciation of their distinct identities.

The disappointments exist because popular political needs have shifted from developing the social contractual agreement to ensuring a space for political dialectics.

One caveat, however, should be taken into account regarding responses to these disappointments: When universal ideas and particular traits go hand in hand, political actors may strategically deploy these differences to form their reactions.

Claims of fraud may be perceived as a call for strategic and particular compensatory actions, which then must be accepted or rejected by government bodies with the mandate to issue policies.

This could mean that the question of justice fails to be addressed, because addressing universal ideals of justice is the job of governmental institutions who are obliged to guard the meaning of justice in Indonesian society.

In any case, it is potentially premature to gauge the extent to which these claims will be addressed, or whether they will be regarded as part of the quest for universal justice or as an effort to seek concrete, particularist actions.

But regardless of the disappointments of the governed — which is an inherent trait of our modern democracy — it would be difficult to dispute the fact that the last Indonesian presidential election and its aftermath were embodiments of the politics of the governed.


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