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Curious Parallels


By Imtiaz Gul

 The News, Feb 23, 2013


The setting looks so familiar: Edhie Ibas Baskoro Yudhoyono, the son of the Indonesian president, being caught on camera asking his staff to bring him an attendance form for the plenary session of the House, signing it and then skipping the event. The CCTV footage of this recently sparked a controversy after he was found absent from a parliamentary session on February 12.

The 32-year-old heir apparent of the president, who returned to Indonesia after studying abroad, is now secretary general of his father’s Democratic Party and a stakeholder in a few multibillion-dollar ventures.

His absence immediately sparked a controversy as to whether he has been doing justice to his position as an MP. Many pointed out that Ibas rarely attends parliamentary sessions, and are now gunning for him. The Jakarta Post even made enquiries into his stated business ventures worth billions of dollars. Most of them, concluded the Post, remain shrouded in mystery.

In 2009, Ibas won a parliamentary seat for the Democratic Party, and became party secretary general in 2010, which raised eyebrows even within his own party. But who cares? In Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, much younger than Ibas, we have a parallel in Pakistan. Bilawal’s position as chairperson of the PPP hardly differs from that of Ibas’s central position in the Indonesian Democratic Party.

Ibas represents a typical phenomenon in democracies in transition. Indonesia took that big step in 1998, when Suharto stepped down after over 32 years of autocratic rule. The country has since taken big democratic and economic strides. But the struggle between the deeply entrenched vested business-military-bureaucratic interests and forces of change continues.

The Indonesian example also reminds us of what happens in our part of the world – Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in India, or Sheikh Mujib’s and Gen Ziaur Rahman’s dynasties in Bangladesh, or the Bhutto legacy in Pakistan. These point to a bitter reality: dynasties play a crucial role in our politics and the ruling elite gets away with absence from a job it draws salary for. There is thin attendance in legislatures – whether in India, Pakistan or Indonesia.

It is common practice among lawmakers to sign the list of attendance but remain absent from House sessions, wrote The Jakarta Post in its story on Ibas Yudhoyono. On that particular day, the attendance sheet recorded 327 MPs’ signatures in a house of 560. But no more than 250 MPs could be counted, the paper wrote. This reminds one of similar scenes in the Pakistani Senate and National Assembly, where bells are often rung to urge legislators back to the House.

Who bothers, and why? After all, most MPs accommodate and curry favours with one another. Who, for instance, pointed out the long absence of many of our politicians during parliamentary sessions? Did anybody, even the Public Accounts Committee, ask why all MPs received their salaries despite staying away from sessions, or slipping out after signing the attendance sheet?

After all, it’s the public’s money – money that the inflation-suffering common man pays in the form of various taxes such as central excise duty, surcharges etc. This ends up in the salaries and allowances of the legislators.

This also raises a fundamental question as to whether all those heirs of big political families, who also run or share big business, need to draw salaries as MPs and ministers. After all, most of them engage in politics as a means of socio-political prominence based on their affluent status within the community. Why do they have to pocket petty amounts of money when they can easily forego these in favour of the poor people who vote for them?

As a whole, Indonesia is on the move, undergoing both democratic transition and economic consolidation, overseen by a free media and a very assertive Corruption Eradication Commission (known as KPK), the Pakistani equivalent of the National Accountability Bureau. The commission draws strength from parliament and has been relentless in an anti-graft campaign.

Based on the writer’s recent visit to Jakarta.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk