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Indonesia veering towards dysfunctional democracy

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suffered a heavy political defeat this month when its plan to raise fuel prices was rejected, not only by a vote in the House of Representatives, but also under pressure from massive street protests.

Nearly 14 years after abandoning its authoritarian government, Indonesia may claim to have a functioning democracy; an open debate with wide public participation over an issue as important as fuel prices is certainly one positive indicator. But there are also grounds for arguing that Indonesia is now veering towards a dysfunctional democracy, one where populism and the rule of the majority have increasingly overpowered rational and moral arguments for more responsible government.

The will of the people has prevailed in guaranteeing that the price of gasoline in Indonesia -- at the equivalent of 50 cents per liter -- remains among the lowest in the world. Indonesia's "noisy democracy" went up by several decibels in the weeks before April 1, the day fuel prices were due to increase by 33 percent. No political cause is more popular in Indonesia than cheap gas: Almost everyone (except perhaps those who have to balance the books at the end of the day) embraces it. The outcome of this debate -- in the House of Representatives, in TV talk-show programs, in cafes, in offices and in the streets -- was inevitable, if not predictable: They who advocate cheap oil win.

The government, whose job is to balance the budget or find the money to pay for the heavy cost of subsidizing domestic fuel consumption, is almost alone. Lost in the noisy debate was their argument that the energy subsidy bill for 2012, at 225.35 trillion rupiah ($25 billion), was already eating up 15 percent of state spending. That's a huge sum, one that could be better spent on more important social and economic programs, such as poverty eradication, schooling, health care for the poor, or the construction of economic infrastructure. The other argument -- that the gasoline subsidy is enjoyed mostly by the wealthy rather than the poor -- was also lost in the debate.

Indonesia may have been rich in oil once, but the new millennium saw rising domestic consumption and rapidly falling reserves, turning the country from an oil exporter to a net importer. Old habits (and paradigms) die hard: Indonesia only quit the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2008. Judging by the recent national debate about fuel prices, it appears that most people still believe, or would like to believe, that Indonesia is still flush with oil.

Cheap oil unfortunately also means cheap politics. What those advocating for cheap oil are not saying, out of ignorance or self-interest, is that someone, somewhere, will have to pay for that (costly) fuel subsidy. The pro-cheap oil side may have prevailed, but the government of President Yudhoyono is not the ultimate loser in this game. The biggest losers are the people and the taxpayers -- in other words, the entire nation. The very same people the advocates for cheap oil claim to speak for will have to pay the price, either through taxes or the potential loss of services such as education and healthcare.

This defeat could effectively turn Yudhoyono -- who is half-way through his second and constitutionally last term - into a lame duck president for the next two years. The defeat in the House and in the streets shows how much his popular support has declined since he won office with a 62 percent mandate in 2009. Two parties that joined his coalition government in 2009 also voted with the opposition to ensure his defeat.

Reports of corruption within Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, and his failure to fire those involved, have some people wondering whether the president -- the man who won the 2004 and 2009 elections on anti-corruption platforms -- still has the moral authority to lead: In his first term, Yudhoyono increased fuel prices three times, with little opposition in the House or in the streets, using the same arguments that he employed this year. The difference is that, this time around, people have simply stopped listening to him.

More troubling for Indonesia's nascent democracy is the message sent with this government defeat: If you can't win your case through a civil debate in the House, mobilize the people in the streets to wage your fight for you. And don't forget to make ample use of the catchphrase "on behalf of the people." What we saw in the streets just now was not so much "people power" as it was "mob power." Indonesians will have to brace themselves for an even noisier democracy in the coming years.

 

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

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An ironic anniversary in Venezuela

Ten years ago this week, Venezuela was convulsed by a spasm of violence and instability that still colors public life today. In an extraordinary 72-hour period, the nation witnessed the largest protest in its history, which ended in a massacre just steps away from the presidential palace. It saw the military chain of command crumble and key officers openly rebel against orders that would have set off an even larger massacre. It saw President Chávez hand himself over as a prisoner. He was then replaced by a reactionary cabal of business leaders and hard-right military officers, flown off to a remote Caribbean Island and then, shortly thereafter,  brought back to power by a group of loyalist officers who never agreed with the decision to depose him in the first place.

Once all that dust had settled, there was little doubt who the hero of the hour was: General Raúl Baduel, who was instrumental in the collapse of the coup. As commander of the army's elite 42nd Paratrooper Brigade in the nearby city of Maracay, Baduel led one of the few genuinely battle-ready bits of Venezuela's creaking military establishment. A die-hard Chávez loyalist, he sprang into action when the coup plotters made their move. Rallying the entire 4th Division, of which his brigade was a part, he sent his troops to pick up the deposed president from the tropical island that the plotters had chosen as a jail.

The paratroopers' show of force was enough to forestall any actual outbreak of violence. Within a few hours Chávez was on his way back to the presidential palace. The bullet casings from the massacre of two days before were still lying on the street; there hadn't even been time to clean them up.  (The photo above shows Chávez shortly after his restoration to power, with Baduel at far right.)

And so General Raúl Baduel is, without doubt, the man who saved the chavista revolution. Chávez, indeed, subsequently rewarded him for his good works by promoting him to Minister of Defense. So you would expect that he'd be celebrating the tenth anniversary of his exploits at a palace gala this week. But you would be wrong.

Instead, the general greeted the occasion with a forlorn video smuggled out of the jail cell he has called home for the last two years:

 

Convicted by a military court on corruption charges that are widely viewed as spurious, Baduel meekly pleads for his rights under the law. As punishment for making the video, prison authorities raided his cell, withdrew all personal comforts, and imposed a far harsher regime of prison isolation. How far Raúl Baduel has fallen.

In truth, he should have seen it coming. He should have realized how dangerous it is to be known as the man who saved the revolution.

President Chávez, he must have realized, can't abide to play second fiddle, to be seen to owe his position to anyone. Soon after the coup attempt, the government began spinning a yarn about how the revolutionary masses had risen up throughout the country to demand the president's return. It was a narrative that reduced Baduel to the role of courier, the man who merely arranged transportation back to the palace. As all but the most rabid chavistas realize, the reality was exactly the opposite: the crowds only came out in force once it was clear the coup attempt had unraveled.

Baduel's real offense, however, was his misplaced sense of duty. The key moment came in December 2007, as the nation voted on a key referendum to end presidential term limits, vastly expand the power of the presidency, and officially commit the country to socialism. The reform, meant to pave the way to the realization of a chavista utopia, was rejected by the voters by the narrowest of margins. As results trickled in to the pliant electoral authorities, President Chávez threw the mother of all presidential tantrums, indicating his readiness to overturn the results and plough ahead with his reforms.

At that key moment, General Baduel  -- by then retired, after having climbed to the very top of the military chain of command -- balked. He was in a key position to mobilize military opposition to Chávez's power-grab. Having once defied the entire military to preserve the constitution and save Chávez's presidency, he thought he was entitled now to defy Chávez to preserve the constitution and save the military's prestige. Outfoxed, a furious Chávez had no choice but to relent, allowing the news of this humiliating defeat to be broadcast to the nation and acknowledging what he called the opposition's "victory made of shit."

Baduel had won the night, but had clearly sealed his fate in the process. Within months he'd lost his job; within years, his freedom.

Sentenced to eight years, he's now reduced to pleading with international human rights bodies to review his case. It won't do any good: Upstaging the president to save the revolution was bad enough, but contradicting him to save the constitution was just going too far.

Oscar Sabetta/Getty Images