How Low is the Quality of Our Political Parties?

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Dr. Gun Gun Heryanto

Dr. Gun Gun Heryanto

By: Dr. Gun Gun Heryanto

To date, there are two noticeable phenomena that mark the dynamics of political parties in the country. First is the prolonged internal conflict within parties as in the case of the Golkar Party and United Development Party (PPP). The two parties, both born by the New Order regime, remain unable to manage and resolve their rifts through internal mechanisms.

Second is the burgeoning trend of acclamation in the mechanism to elect a party leader. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), for example, has yet to hold a national congress to elect its leader for the 2015-2020 term. However, based on its national meeting in Semarang, Central Java, last September, it is almost certain that incumbent chair Megawati Soekarnoputri will be unanimously reelected.

Aburizal Bakrie had previously been reelected Golkar leader by acclamation in the party’s congress in Bali last November, a decision that partly triggered internal squabbling, which remains unabated.

The Hanura Party congress in Surakarta, Central Java, on Feb. 13-15 also turned into an event to confirm reelection of Wiranto as party chairman by acclamation. A similar one-man show could potentially occur in the upcoming congresses of the Gerindra Party and Democratic Party if incumbent chairmen Prabowo Subianto and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, respectively, contest the elections.

The fundamental problem plaguing political parties in the country is weak ideological basis, democratic ethos and the vagueness of a sustainable regeneration scheme. Ideological basis has long been neglected and even considered a utopia, with many politicians deeming party ideology as meaningless and irrelevant.

Democratic ethos correlates with democratic values at the party level. The spirit of a party as a public entity that should empower its people and constituency is often subject to the ego and the interests of small elites within a party.

These problems are exacerbated by impediments in regeneration. There are some natural regeneration stages, namely recruitment, reinforcement and empowerment of organization loyalists, as well as distribution and allocation of senior party members into a number of positions both in the internal body and in public. These natural phases, however, have been reduced and even decomposed by the oligarchy, politics of dynasty and transactional political behavior which have been rampantly practiced in the country.

Many parties now experience uncertainty in performing adaptive structuring in their organizational body. In Anthony Giddens’ terminology, adaptive structuring refers to the process of how social systems such as organization are produced, reproduced and transformed through members’ use of rules, which functions as their behavior. Thus, the structure is created and maintained as well as changed by adapting or creating new rules.

It implies that political parties should strengthen their organizational system that is adhered to by all party members. It should instead fertilize feudalism and patron-client politics that can lead to subordination of one or a few people.

To become a modern organization, a party requires reflexivity. This process refers to the ability of actors in monitoring their actions and behavior. Without this capability, politicians will never learn from failures and setback their parties have experienced.

The PPP has been divided into two factions under Djan Faridz and Romahurmuziy. The two factions uphold organizational rules by their own interpretations as the result of different political interests. Similarly, Agung Laksono’s faction of Golkar and Aburizal’s seem to fall in the labyrinth of power and look to never find a way out despite the fact that they have a lot of experienced politicians whose capability in conflict management is unquestionable.

The problem, therefore, lies not with the track record of the figures, but personal ego and factions. In fact, history has shown that conflict resolution through the court would result in formal separation through the formation of a new party.

The phenomenon of acclamation in the election of a party leader indicates the presence of groupthink. This symptom, according to Irving Janis in his book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (1982), is described as a group that has a high degree of cohesiveness and often fails to develop alternatives to the actions they take. Senior party members think in a slightly similar manner and avoid opposite thoughts, thus there is a small chance that unpopular or different ideas could emerge to rival those of other senior party members and more importantly the elites.

Party executives and senior party members no longer dare to speak out although at the level of discourse, affiliative constraints or the need for acceptability and consensus in the organizational body remain very strong. Affiliative constraints tend to encourage group members to avoid the risks of being rejected or labeled as traitors.

One of the significant impacts of this poor quality of the elite circulation is the lack of impartial leaders. Figures such as Megawati, Wiranto, Prabowo and Yudhoyono by default will always be at the top of the party hierarchy. One time, when they transfer leadership posts to other party members, internal factionalism will appear in public. It is surely common if a party has a strong figure; however, this political resource of figures should transform itself into the power of systems.

A party’s inability to manage internal conflicts is eventually as dreadful as the powerlessness of the party to escape from the figure subordination. Institutional parties will be very fragile and will never be able to stand firm as a democratic public entity.

Parties in conflict are weak and not ready to pursue any political agenda that requires focus, such as regional elections at the end of the year. Meanwhile, parties that are subordinated by a few oligarchic elite will only attain fake convenience and artificial settlement of their disputes.


The writer, a lecturer in political communication at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, is executive director of The Political Literacy Institute.

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