EVEN in the rush hour traffic on Jalan Solo, a central artery of the ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta, no one honks. An increase in bank credit over the past year has meant an influx of cars and motorcycles, a development that has driven residents of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, into bloody incidents of road rage. But in “Jogja”, with its academic and artistic virtues—in the national consciousness, it occupies a place like Oxford’s in Britain or Kyoto’s in Japan—one still finds a well-ordered, even peaceful city.
Yet events of the past fortnight have sent the city seething. In the name of democracy, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (usually called SBY), is pushing for direct elections of the Yogyakarta governor and vice-governor, offices traditionally held by the royal houses of Yogyakarta and Paku Alum respectively. A monarch would still head the province, retaining autonomy in cultural matters and leadership over a new, state-funded royal institution—the parardhya—but day-to-day affairs would pass to a democratically elected governor. Such a plan would come into effect after the childless sultan “is no longer able to serve”, as SBY put it.
This has not gone over well in Yogyakarta. For many, the “bonsaification of the monarchy”—as a local newspaper has it—is an insult. Men in formal Javanese attire, complete with beautiful kris, ritualised broadswords, have camped outside vice president Boediono’s Jogja house in protest, and hundreds of provincial lurah, or village heads, have expressed support for the monarchy. The government has raised the issue every year since 2004, a show of unusual persistence from SBY; in 2008, 10,000 people rallied in Jogja. As the government prepared its draft bill, pamphlets and stickers in the city are demanding a referendum on the province’s future. Jogja’s mayor, Herry Zudianto, raised the flag at half-mast on December 12th, to protest the bill. The more conspiratorially inclined see SBY’s move as an attack on Sultan Hamengkubuwono’s political aspirations. The sultan is affiliated with the old-guard Golkar party and its spin-off, the National Democrats, could become a vehicle for the sultan’s own ambitions in the 2014 elections.
There are historical reasons for Jogja’s hereditary privileges. The current sultan’s father, Hamengkubuwono IX, declared his support for the Indonesian republic in 1945, a vote of confidence during uncertain times. Later, he fought on the frontlines of the 1949 battle of Yogyakarta, and funded a bankrupt Indonesian state for three years during the tumultuous post-independence years. In return, Jogja’s special autonomy was twice affirmed by Indonesian law.
Political scientists in Jakarta and Yogyakarta say that changes are needed: Yogyakarta’s legislative council does not “run normally” because the council dares not challenge the governor (who is, after all, the king). Therefore, there are no checks and balances. Yet a monarchy has its advantages: Yogyakartans cannot be faulted for revering their grand, incorruptible king in preference to some wheeler-dealer provincial governor. Sultan Hamengkubuwono’s stature also gives him a special sovereignty in national politics: he could support the Indonesian reform movement in 1998 without fear, and in during the violent days of May of that year, when Suharto came down, he calmed protesters in Jogja, thus saving the city from the looting and burning that affected other Javanese cities. The liberal sultan, who abolished polygamy when he rose to the throne in 1998, has also expressed concern that the new parardhya institution would add to existing royal privileges by conferring immunity from prosecution.
As Mount Merapi nearby continues to spew ash into the city’s Code river, Yogyakartans will recall the poet Ranggawarsita’s famed lines, warning against “a time without order/ in which everyone is confused in his mind.” For most Yogyakartans, the confusion is all SBY’s. A regional passport with the royal crest began circulating online last week, courtesy of a local provocateur. If it turns out that a liberal democracy does indeed clash with their monarchy, Yogyakartans know which one must go.