By Syahrul Hidayat
September 24 2014
After a two-year-long campaign, people in Scotland have decided not to break away from the United Kingdom. While Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland’s government, and his supporters could not hide their disappointment with the fact that only 45 percent of the voters said “yes” to independence, it is surely a huge relief for the central government in Westminster.
More than that, many leaders in Western Europe, especially Spain, woke up on Friday morning with big smiles. The torpedo — that is what they called the referendum — was in fact not the cause of fatalities and catastrophes. At last, the problem of central and regional relations did not end up in separation, as was also the case with Quebec in Canada.
As a country with problems between the center and the regions, Indonesia can surely learn a lot from this democratic process.
Despite the differences in practicing democracy, it is clear that Indonesia is a country that has chosen to adopt a democratic process as a replacement for authoritarian governance under the New Order.
The first lesson is there was a tendency that those who supported independence in the Scottish referendum lived in a relatively deprived condition, especially economically. Glasgow and Dundee are the best example of urban people who expected a new situation in an independent Scotland after experiencing less fortunate living conditions during the ongoing economic crisis.
Aspirations for independence loomed on the grounds that Scots could possibly maximize their money from oil and gas from the North Sea. It was also assumed that elderly and rural people were more in favour of independence.
For Indonesia, it is clear that the idea of separation in certain regions mainly stems from an unfair distribution of revenues from natural resources.
Therefore, to win their hearts and minds the central government could find no other way than to formulate fairer policies that allow local people to profit from the natural resources.
In the case of the UK, the implementation of the welfare state decades ago has clearly been enjoyed by the people, who were then consequently afraid of the uncertainty that may have followed separation from London. It might have included them losing their right to use Sterling and their European Union membership.
That’s why the ‘no’ campaigners led by Alistair Darling offered a road map to give more power to the local government in Edinburgh to formulate better policies for the people. They proposed the tag of “Better Together” to capture the feeling of many.
The message in this case is to entrust local people to develop their capacities to manage the money and formulate policies. Some in Indonesia may be sceptical with this idea, but in fact this is part of the process of developing trust in and guidance from the central government.
As in the UK, welfare state principles are implemented nationally to include tax systems to pay for services in education, health, pensions and benefits.
The local governments receive budgets for infrastructure and a room to collect revenues for local services. As long as the people receive and enjoy benefits from the UK government the idea of separation can be challenged in a peaceful manner.
Second, it is important to maintain a democratic process as a mean of asking the public for approval. Of course, it is absolutely clear that Salmond and other supporters of independence believed in the idea of Scotland being better off without having any relations with London.
In fact, more than 50 percent of the people did not buy the idea.
Therefore, it was not because the idea was not brilliant, but democracy is about what people say and feel.
Although democracy is criticized as inefficient and lacking in details and technical discussions when dealing with the public, it still guarantees that political elites are always in consultation with the public. That is the essence of democracy.
In a mature democracy such as the UK’s, democracy still saves the political arena from the monopoly of a tiny group of politicians, who suspiciously tend to get corrupted if they are given absolute access to power.
The lesson of democracy can be learned from the way politicians responded to the outcome of the referendum. Although believing wholeheartedly that the Scots would choose independence, Salmond was humble enough to say that democracy was to be admired, which means the people’s voices have to be accepted. At the same time, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his admiration of the ‘yes’ campaign and acknowledged their voice by offering a deliverable devolution agenda and a time table for its implementation.
Can we see the same harmonious situation just a day after the long battle that preceded the 2014 presidential elections in July? As a big country that has survived different regimes, we should share the same attitude of always taking the public’s preferences into account in the political process.
Following such a process, in the form of an election and a public consultation, political elites should respect people’s choices because this is, again, the essence of democracy.
In other words, democracy is not only about winning or losing.
Syahrul Hidayat is a lecturer at the school of political science, University of Indonesia. He is currently an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK.