Zakir Hussain – As Indonesians over the past week marked the anniversary of the reform movement that toppled strongman Suharto 14 years ago, several major newspapers ran a photograph of a banner on a bridge in Banten that seemed to capture the mood of many.
On it, the former president is smiling as he asks, in Javanese: "What's up? My era was better, wasn't it?"
The banner, hung up by aspiring politicians from the small One Republic Party, which openly extols his rule, hit a nerve. It encapsulates for many Indonesians all that has gone wrong with their country since its transition to democracy began in May 1998.
Many now question the quality of that democracy. A common theme running through the recent public debate on the subject is that reformasi – as the reform process is known in Bahasa Indonesia – has lost steam and failed to change the nature of politics in the country as many had believed it would.
In a poll conducted this month by the leading Indonesian broadsheet, Kompas, 54 percent of those surveyed felt that the state of the country's politics was as bad as or worse than it was before the events of 1998. Asked to evaluate the state of law enforcement and the fight against corruption, 64 percent felt things were as bad or worse.
Observers say corruption, collusion and nepotism – long associated with the days of the last Suharto decade – are as rife as ever, rule of law remains weak, and social conflict and labour unrest are growing.
In a column in the daily Republika, political scientist Yudi Latif wrote: "Indonesian politics has made technical progress, but suffered an ethical setback. "The democratic hardware can be polished, but the software continues to have a tyrannical soul, with democracy leaving the demos, the common people, behind."
Hasyim Muzadi, former chairman of mass-based Muslim group Nadhlatul Ulama, laments the fact that political parties today fail to emphasize integrity when recruiting cadres, but succumb to transactional politics – where elected officials focus on how they can benefit in exchange for making a decision, rather than on making the right decision.
Constitutional Court chairman Mahfud M.D. said: "There is a lot of low politics going on. The system of political recruitment needs to be relooked."
Others note that the country's economic growth numbers – 6.5 percent last year – and rising prosperity, while raising the standard of living for many people, have also widened the gap between ordinary folk and the elite.
Incomes may be rising, but so too is the cost of living. The Kompas poll results are startling. It found that as many as 69 percent felt the state of the Indonesian economy was as bad or worse than before 1998, even though economists and others note that Indonesia's macroeconomic indicators, like the ratio of foreign debt and gross domestic product, are healthy.
This sentiment did not vary much across people's educational background, or their province.
Recent months have also seen protests and riots by farmers and factory workers over inadequate pay and unjust land seizures, as incidents of social unrest in the country pick up, some targeting local officials.
These developments have fed the growing sentiment that the country has an abundance of self-interested politicians, when what it needs are leaders who can significantly improve the lot of its people.
At a discussion organized by alumni of the Indonesia Islamic University on Thursday, former president Megawati Soekarnoputri said: "If we reflect on the 14-year journey of reform, it seems there is anxiety on the direction and future of the nation. Why? Because the leadership is at this moment directionless and not effective."
Her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle is in opposition. Observers say she has not forgiven her successor, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for challenging her to the presidency in 2004, but her views are increasingly echoed by many. The event was, tellingly, titled "longing for statesmen."