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The king and us

Publication Date : 31-08-2012


On the eve of the legislature's plenary session, which was held yesterday to pass the bill on Yogyakarta's special status, dozens of people from different faiths and beliefs celebrated the political decision to keep the monarchy-style government in the Indonesian province intact after 11 years of debate.

For outsiders, the choice by Yogyakarta citizens to retain the sultan as the governor (as evident in a number of local rallies called pisowanan agung) and withstand Jakarta's political onslaught to force a direct gubernatorial election in the province, is hard to accept in this era of democracy. More strange, in the eyes of non-Yogyakartans, is the local people's apparent blind loyalty to the sultan, going so far as to declare their readiness to sacrifice their lives for the monarch.

Jakarta's penchant for democracy, particularly since the inception of direct elections for regional heads in 2005, was behind its initiative to put an end to the privileges of the Yogyakarta sultan; privileges that allow him to take office without effort and potentially rule the province for life.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was once confronted with widespread criticism for referring to Yogyakarta as a region ruled by a monarchy, which ran counter to democracy. Even today, it remains unclear what kind of democracy the President was talking about, given the fact that during his administration, democracy in the country has been tarnished by rampant cases of the deprivation of minority rights, denials of freedom of expression and the exercising of dictatorship by the majority.

The awarding of special status by founding president Sukarno stemmed from the historic declaration by Yogyakarta sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, the late father of the current sultan/governor, and head of Pakualaman principality, Paku Alam, on Sept. 5, 1945, to cede the kingdom’s sovereignty to the newly born Republic of Indonesia.

The special status is, therefore, a contract, the sanctity of which has to be respected until the two parties agree to end the deal.

Indeed, it seems anomalous in a republic like Indonesia that a king should hold real power, but nobody, or at least not many people in Yogyakarta, mind this "peculiarity". Similarly, the people of Aceh have chosen the imposition of Sharia law (Islamic law) for their special identity, although the Constitution clearly says Indonesia is not a religion-based state; and Jakartans do not question the absence of mayoral elections.

Every rule has an exception and that’s how special status works in Yogyakarta, Aceh and Jakarta without undermining the whole national system, let alone the national leadership.

The endorsement by the House of Representatives of the bill on Yogyakarta’s special status is a win-win settlement to the polemic pitting Jakarta against the sultanate city. When it comes into effect, the law should no longer give room to unnecessary acrobatic politics that distract Yogyakartans from their pursuit of welfare.

For the sultan, the newly passed bill should encourage him to prove his commitment to democracy, including his compliance with the procedure he will have to undergo in order to take office for another five years.

Another consequence of the law is the requirement that the sultan remain politically neutral, which will force him to quit the Golkar Party. This provision appears to discriminate against the sultan as many governors are allowed to practice politics, but it is a trade-off the sultan has to accept due to the more dignified role he plays as the guardian of local culture.

Perhaps the sultan will set a precedent for good governance in the country in which a formal leader’s loyalty to his or her party ends when loyalty to the people begins.


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