Line Of Sight

by Juan L. Mercado

Most of us are fixated on Vice President Jejomar Binay’s now 15 percent—and still plunging—nosedive in poll standing as well as on that sprawling P1.2-billion Batangas “hacienda” with an air-conditioned piggery, or on the bogus bakery for Makati senior citizens’ birthday cakes.

Not mine, Binay protests. Allegations of sleaze, lobbed at him by Senators AntonioTrillanes IV and Alan Peter Cayetano, “are malicious thinly-disguised politics,” he snaps. “I’m ready to face any fair and impartial investigation of all allegations hurled against me and my family.” Anywhere? Except before the Senate blue ribbon committee, he clarifies.

It takes effort to raise our line of sight beyond our shorelines. That holds whether it be Malaysia’s quarrel over “proprietorship” to the name of Allah, or the Hong Kong standoff between students and the embattled “986”—that is, shorthand for chief executive CY Leung.

“Elected” from a committee of 1,200 controlled by Beijing, “986” now twists in the wind. He’s been trashed for a $6.5-million secret dole from an Australian company.

In next-door Malaysia, opposition legislator Robert Phang asked Prime Minister Najib Razak in an open letter: “Why are we quarrelling about God?” We quarrel about almost everything, including something so flimsy as the ownership of the word “Allah.” Malaysia is beginning to look like a Taliban state where religious authorities suppress different or dissenting religious views.

In Burma (Myanmar), 3,073 prisoners were released just before the country hosts an international summit next month. US President Barack Obama and the mint-new Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who assumes office on Oct. 20, will attend.

Burma’s junta was tarred by its earlier suppression of Buddhist monks and citizens calling for the release of Nobel Laurate Aung San Suu Kyi. Governance by colonels, however, ended in 2011. Since then, Yangon periodically has granted “amnesty” to prisoners—as curtain raisers for diplomatic conferences.

October’s releases were no different. Most of those who were freed had been jailed for minor crimes, the Associated Press points out. At least eight were former intelligence officers arrested 10 years ago as part of a political purge. Fifty-eight were foreign nationals.

Most international sanctions against Burma have been lifted. The International Monetary Fund estimates Yangon’s economy will grow by 8 percent in the near term. But Reuters reports that risks to the economy were growing due to thin external and fiscal buffers. The underlying fiscal deficit is expected to increase to around 5.5 percent of Burma’s gross domestic product by March.

As mayor of Solo City in Java, Joko Widodo was invited to a magazine’s office for an interview. “Who are you?” asked a reporter who found him sitting alone. The future president-elect stood up, bowed politely and offered his name card. “The image of Joko as a self-effacing public servant was born.”

Strengthening Indonesia’s position as the world’s major “maritime axis” is the incoming president’s priority, said transition team deputy Hasto Kristiyanto. Despite the time squeeze, the president-to-be will attend the 22nd Apec Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Beijing on Nov. 10-11 and the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane, Australia on Nov. 15-16, the Jakarta Post reported. He will be only 10 days-plus in office then.

Widodo takes over Merdeka Palace, bucking efforts by trashed old guards to strip Indonesians of their right to vote directly for their district leaders or mayors, writes Elizabeth Pisani. An epidemiologist, Pisani became a foreign correspondent. She authored the book: “Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.”

Indonesia seethes from a generational clash—between those whose mindsets were cobbled during 32 years of the Suharto dictatorship and those who came of age since authoritarian rule collapsed in 1998. In the old guards’ corner is Prabowo Subianto, who promised a strong-arm government. In the reformist corner is Widodo.

Subianto and supporters whipped the departing Parliament into passing a bill that shunted control over key offices to the largest coalition in the chamber of Subianto rather than to the largest party of Widodo. They’re now dismantling the direct election of district heads and of provincial governors. Expensive and prone to graft, they assert.

Indonesia switched to direct elections in 2005. “Direct elections did not remove money from the nomination and voting process. They did change the way candidates spent that money. Instead of concentrating patronage on party hacks, it reaches now district heads and voters.

“Voters proved sophisticated enough to make fine distinctions.” They tolerate patronage that delivers jobs and contracts to an officeholder’s supporters, as long as they result in schools and roads. “But they do not tolerate out-and-out theft. Incumbents who don’t spread benefits widely are regularly tossed out of office.”

By shunting the choice of district heads back to political parties, Subianto’s coalition stomped on the chances of such candidates emerging in the future. An October newspaper Kompas poll reported that 82 percent of the respondents, in 12 cities, thought 86 percent of politicians were corrupt.

“There is an irony here,” Pisani adds.

“Although Indonesians are losing democratic rights, it is happening through entirely democratic procedures.” But Widodo is a politician, not a saint, and Indonesian politicians have a talent for unlikely compromise. He could tempt one or two of those parties to scurry over to his side.

“Reverting to direct elections and keeping the door to reform open would be the ultimate revenge for Indonesian democracy.”


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