Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Australia, It Takes Only One to Tango

STALEMATE. Australians may have just witnessed one of the most exciting federal elections in the country’s history, but the power divide between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in parliament would not be the outcome they were keen to have.

A well-known idiom it takes two to tango definitely does not refer to politics.

At least that’s what we could conclude from Australia’s parliament composition as a result of a nail-biting federal election drama, in which Julia Gillard from Labor Party and Tony Abbot from National Coalition acted as the main protagonists.

In the election, there were weeks when a hung parliament was imminent as both Gillard and Abbot shared the same number of seats. In a country with a de-facto two-party parliamentary system like Australia, a brittle situation from hung parliament –a condition where parliament is divided and neither political party has an absolute majority against each other– is the last thing that any prime minister would want to have.

Fortunately, after weeks of vagueness, Australians could breathe a sigh of relief when Labor’s Gillard finally secured 76 seats (the number required for outright victory from the 150 seats in the parliament) with last-gasp support from Australian Greens Party and three independent members. This ends Australia’s political limbo, even though the predicament is far from over as Gillard’s road ahead is still paved by wobbly rocks.

The major reason why some are skeptics about the stability of Australia’s future government is a parliament with ruling party has no supreme power against the opposition could prevent the government to perform at full throttle.

This could be nasty: during times when government policies urgently require approval from the parliament, politics intervention from the strong opposing party may be the hinderer that stands in the way of the implementation of such important policies.

As a country that reels through both the era of autocracy and democracy (and also experiences the thorny transition between), several examples could be drawn from Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbor to the north, in terms of parliamentary matter.

In our not-so-distant past, former Indonesian president Suharto can run a top-down politics and an extremely stable government because he had almost no one who can oppose him in the parliament. In addition to the autocratic culture that was stemmed from his leadership style, the fact that Golkar party always came out victorious with overwhelming support in every elections led the party to earn most of the seats in the parliament, which allowed Suharto to implement government policies as he pleases.

Soeharto provides excellent example that the bigger power that a ruling party has in the parliament, then the bigger chance of government policies could be implemented smoothly. In this situation, political interference from opposing parties is unlikely to happen because of the overwhelming power that the ruling party boasts in the parliament.

Today, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did try to do just that by embracing other parties to form a giant coalition which hold 75 percent of total seats from the parliament, with expectation that such powerful coalition would weaken the bargaining power of the opposition and ensure the stability of his second-tenure government.

So what would happen in a situation like Australia’s, where a parliament is divided into two fractions, with the ruling party only has wafer-thin majority against the opposition? If you were the leader of ruling party in Australia like Julia Gillard with current parliament’s composition, then in the future you can expect your powerful opposition in parliament to confront and grill you every time you come out with new government policies.

And with her experience as former minister and policymaker, Gillard surely knows that politics could potentially turn very filthy. Several lecturers in my university had experience of being a policymaker in the government, and some of them once uttered of how a crucial economic policy could lose its timing and credibility, and eventually become ineffectual, since it usually has to undergo an arduous and protracted process of Indonesian politics first before it can be approved by the lawmakers.

In United States, very often Barack Obama had to endure torrid times first from the Republican lawmakers before his policies could be put into actions. Indeed, providing check and balance to the government by confronting the ruling party is precisely the job of opposing party, like the Republican. But in academics perspective –particularly in economics field where timing does matter and economic policies needs to be implemented just in time– there are times when a too strong opposition party leads to lengthy political process, which ultimately reduce the efficiency of the government itself.

Yet in 2010 Gillard is not the only world’s newly-elected leader facing difficult challenges. Some of the peers with same fate as hers including Philippines’ Noynoy Aquino, who was just elected this year, but already he has to deal with the problem of the national security and recovering Philippines image to the world following the Hongkong tourists carnage incident.

Or Colombia’s new president Juan Manuel Santos, who presided over as president amidst the growing domestic tension between the country and guerillas and drug kingpins, as well as the problem with the war threat from Hugo Chavez because of the infamous 2010 Colombia-Venezuela diplomatic crisis.

New Briton Prime Minister David Cameron is also unfortunate to occupy 10 Downing Street this year in the middle of anti-British sentiment among environmentalists around the world following British Petroleum fiasco at Gulf of Mexico.

Having only a slim power difference against her opposition in the parliament, with even a single lawmaker defecting could turn her plans upside down, the government during Gillard’s tenure is highly fragile indeed. In the world where encountering an uphill battle is becoming a trend for every newly-elected leader this year, how to tame her stronger-than-ever opposition in the parliament is the test for our beloved neighbor’s first female prime minister to overcome.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post on Saturday, September 25 2010

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