Noto Suoneto

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only affecting the global health and economic situation, but it has also tested the political leadership of all countries no matter what their political system is. Either they are Republic with Presidential System (Indonesia) and Parliamentary System (India), Absolute Monarchy (Saudi Arabia), Constitutional Monarchy (Japan, United Kingdom), or One-party State (China). Many even say, Democracy? Autocracy? coronavirus doesn’t care.

However, one issue that has been debated by many experts around the world is about the government system. Democracy as the most applied form of governmental system is arguably in danger and has differently assessed on whether it’s an effective form of government or not at the time of this unprecedented health crisis. 

The United States as a democratic country that has already been in distress is now on the very top list with the highest COVID-19 infection cases. Many argued it’s caused by the mishandled of the democratic system and the failure of Trump’s political leadership with the rising polarization within the country.

Meanwhile, some other democracies like South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan with their advanced technologies and reliance on scientific-based policies have shown to the world that democracy is remaining the best option in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. So, how exactly democracy play a role in fighting against COVID-19?

In contrast, if we look at how Vietnam who has relatively successful in containing the effect of COVID-19 by its authoritarian measures (surveillance and monitoring policies) has sparked a question “what governmental system is the most effective at the time of crisis like now?”. In some other countries, governments have made foundational changes through their ways of imposing measures and policies on COVID-19.

In Southeast Asia, several governments such as the Philippines and Cambodia have been criticized for not taking swift action in combatting the COVID-19, many also criticized for doing some authoritarian measures in their efforts to battle the pandemic. There are trends from the ASEAN leaders/governments in terms of controlling the criticism made by its opposition, civil society, and public towards the government efforts in solving the health crisis.

Prof. John Delury of Yonsei University at the dialogue held by Korea Foundation and Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia on 2 June made an interesting finding after identified a pattern of world democracies in which New democracies do better than Old democracies in handling the pandemic, Asian democracies are doing better than European and American democracies in dealing with this COVID-19 situation. It is interesting then to explore two relatively new democratic nations in Asia like South Korea and Indonesia.

South Korea and Indonesia have passed decades of authoritarianism and military ruling regime, these two countries are now applying democratic system as the way to rule the government despite some problems remained. Both countries are a relatively new democratic nation with different steps and priorities in consolidating the system. What is most impressive about South Korea’s democracy is not the formal institutional arrangement but informal engagement by citizens. Similarly to Indonesia, the involvement of civil society is very significant especially in overseeing policies made by the government.

In relation to the COVID-19 situation, people’s trust is an important aspect and played a major part in the efforts to fight against the virus. The denial towards the virus, the low governance capacity (Ministry of Health) and undermine the involvement of scientists at the beginning of the outbreak have exposed Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government weaknesses.

These weaknesses of political leadership in containing the effect of COVID-19 have been translated into a low trust towards government and then affect the obedience of citizens to follow the rules and policies imposed by the government. In Jakarta, the partial lockdown has never been gaining full support of the whole population, caused by the inability of the government to convince the public and give the solutions on how to balance the protection of public health and their economic survivability.

In South Korea, the people trust shown from the last recent general election on 15 April 2020. President Moon Jae-in’s successful measures and policies in handling the COVID-19 crisis have turned-out into high votes. President Moon’s Democratic Party and its affiliate won 180 out of 300 seats, clearly concluded as a reward for good performance by his administration.

In my last conversation with Kim Chang-beom, South Korean Ambassador to Indonesia, he stated that South Korea has adopted a unique model for responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. The key tenet of their model can be defined as a “dynamic response system for open democratic societies.” South Korean approach is 3Ts-Trace, Test, and Treat in an extraordinary manner. The two core values of their approach are transparency and creative thinking. Two interesting parts of his statement, “open democratic societies” and “transparency”.

Government transparency is still a problem in solving the COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia since the first case announced in March 2020. This lack of transparency even has made other problems such as unsynchronized coordination between central and local government and unclear direction from the government ministers (the case of annual traditional homecoming/Mudik during last Idul Fitri).

Endy Bayuni, a senior top Indonesian journalist argued the announcement made by the Spokesperson of COVID-19 Special Task Force is normative and even not given any chances for journalists to explore more substantive discussion over government measures in battling the pandemic. In which, I believe the public needs it.

The debate between economy vs public health in South Korea and Indonesia is also determining the government’s decision to re-opening its economy. The second wave of COVID-19 just happened in Seoul right after the government loses the strict movement regulation has shown to the world that we must be very careful to reopen our economy back. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the narrative of the economic recovery plan to be upheld start n June has created a pessimism within the population on whether the decision is right in time or just too early.

I argued that the expansion of corporate power in democracy has pushed both governments into acting more favor with businesses and created a perspective that reopening its economy more quickly is the best option, although people believe the situation is still unsafe. The Indonesian president even announced to “live along with” the virus and get used to a new normal.

It’s definitely so many areas of democracy need to be improved. Restrictive measures at the time of this crisis are necessary, however, it should have complied with the existing laws and regulations. Maybe those measures are necessary and effective, but of course, some of them also have side-effects on the functioning of our democracies and human rights principles. What we avoid is of course that governments have gone so far as to utilize the crisis to limit civil and democratic rights. And this is why democracy matters.

The lessons from South Korea that a good government response will gain more public trust and will eventually provide political stability not only to the ruling government but also to the whole population has shown to us how the appliance of democracy remains important. People trust and transparency are two of the most important values of democracy and it should be consistently kept as priorities. The positive attitudes towards the government will be rising if the government responses in battling COVID-19 are well-conducted played by its strong political leadership.

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