What Would Bung Hatta Say of the Nation’s Current State of Affairs?

As Indonesia prepares to elect its new leader, it is worth remembering one from past. And as the country enters its second decade of decentralization, it’s worth thinking about Indonesia’s place in the world today.

Many donor agencies provide benchmarks for measuring Indonesia’s democracy, but these only tell part of the story. Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s first vice president, independence fighter and co-author of the 1945 Constitution, worked to achieve independence and peace in Indonesia. What would he say of Indonesia today?

Indonesia is seen as one of the most successful liberal democracies in Southeast Asia. And its economy is outpacing many around the globe. One of its main achievements is its relatively peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Unlike many countries of Eastern Europe, Indonesia survived massive political and economic transition without fragmenting or experiencing extensive conflict.

This was one of Hatta’s main goals for Indonesia during his lifetime. Hatta did not envision Indonesia’s government as emulating others. Yet, he did see it as a democracy, and he set the stage for it to become a leading example.

Independence and peace were necessary preconditions of that larger goal. For Hatta, long periods of peace were needed to achieve “a pattern of living that would guarantee the prosperity of the people.”

Unlike radical members in the government, Hatta chose diplomacy over violence as a means of gaining independence from the Dutch. And he opposed Darul Islam, which saw Indonesia’s vulnerability during transition as an opportunity to overthrow the republic and establish an Islamic state.

In foreign policy, Hatta promoted independence and peace by opposing alignment with both poles of the Cold War. But he did not take recourse to isolationism. And although he supported the meeting of Asian and African leaders who would not bend to colonialism, he did not advocate the creation of a third bloc based on a non-alignment stance. He opposed positioning that might upset an international order based on a mutual respect between states and non-interference with each other’s structure of government.

Indonesia’s current leaders are still looking to keep the country peaceful and stable while its government continues to form. Hatta, however, might not agree with some of the means they are using to attain this end.

The government is pre-empting conflict by banning local political parties. Indonesia is the only multiparty democracy in the world that does not allow local political parties, which leaders fear could become vehicles for ethnic or regional identity-based politics.

Although there is some consensus that party competition can exacerbate old and unresolved enmities, Hatta would most likely not consider banning parties as the right means for attaining social peace. In 1945, Hatta established a flourishing party system in Indonesia. In the 1955 elections, regional parties performed well, and Indonesia’s national parties relied heavily on regional and ethnic support bases. In his 1960 book “Our Democracy,” Hatta attacked Sukarno’s system of “guided democracy” for the very reason that it curtailed the influence of parties and thus kept an authoritarian form.

Indonesia’s government is also proposing to do away with direct elections for regional mayors and district heads. According to Directorate General of Regional Autonomy, the government is doing this in part to “prevent community conflicts from breaking out.” Eliminating elections are hoped to achieve this by “putting an emotional distance between candidates for district chief or mayor and their supporters.”

Hatta might disagree with this measure as well. For Hatta, public inclusion in politics was only dangerous if poverty made people vulnerable to emotional appeals and radical ideals. When the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) threatened to destabilize the nation’s non-alignment stance, Hatta proposed improving national prosperity instead of banning the party.

If we were to ask Hatta where Indonesia should be going, he would certainly support the government’s aim of maintaining peace. However, he might find a different means of doing so than distancing the public from the political process. He might support an increase in prosperity by backing up economic plans that promote inclusive wealth and improve service delivery. This could be done by opening channels at the local level for people to monitor delivery, criticize the government and realize their rights. And his non-alignment with both centralized and hands-off governance shows he might be open to a slightly stronger role for the state in aligning institutions and working closely with the private sector.

Hatta, who criticized Dutch laws for punishing those who through “words, writing or drawing” criticized the government, might also support the institutions of a vibrant civil society. This is emerging in Indonesia as intellectual circles, artistic initiatives, publishing houses and websites are beginning to form. And his idea that Indonesia would one day be a leader in the international arena suggests that he would support its participation in fora such as the G20.

Indonesia has been recognized internationally for its ability to maintain peace, and outbreaks of violence in Thailand, Syria and Egypt show this is no small feat. But it is starting to go further. In choosing its next leader, Indonesia should choose one ready to begin writing a story for Indonesia that will tell the world much more. Advocates of progress could do worse than look to the past, to Hatta’s vision for Indonesia.

Hilary Saccomanno is a researcher at Strategic Asia, a consultancy promoting cooperation between Asian nations. She can be contacted at hilary.saccomanno@strategic-asia.com.

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