Editions : October-December 2014

JOURNAL | COVER STORY By: Edward Aspinall

What are the lessons of this year’s bitterly fought Indonesian presidential election campaign? It will be argued in this essay that the election points both to underlying strengths and deep sources of fragility within Indonesia’s democracy. Addressing these sources of fragility will be a major challenge for the incoming administration of Joko Widodo. It won’t be an easy task, and not simply because some of the problems are so deeply entrenched. More to the point, and not without irony, some of the sources of fragility are intimately bound up with the same things that make Indonesia’s democracy strong.

In particular, one source of the robust democracy is the very broad elite buy-in that it has achieved. Unlike in some countries, most major elite groups support the democratic system. Most aim to participate in its democratic institutions in order to gain influence over policy-making and access to the government’s patronage resources. For example, Indonesian governments have been characterized by broad-based “rainbow coalitions” in which all – or virtually all – the major parties are represented. In the regions, elections for governors and district chiefs often bring together equally colorful coalitions in which parties with widely differing social identities or policy platforms team up for the sake of pursuing power. This broad elite participation – “promiscuous power-sharing” is what the American political scientist Dan Slater calls it – has been in one respect a boon for Indonesian democracy because it has reduced the incentives to go outside the system and try to bring it down. It has been a source of Indonesian democracy’s staying power.

But there have also been costs. The negative side is that broad elite participation has been founded upon patronage politics and corruption. Major political players are willing to set aside different policy preferences and social outlooks in the interest of participating in government, in part because it is lucrative. Few would deny that both corrupt payments and “money politics” have become critical components of the way the political system works. For example, though money politics was perhaps not so apparent during the July presidential contest, it was very obvious during the preceding legislative elections last April. Candidates around the country invested huge sums for vote-buying and gifts for their constituents; many members of Indonesia’s national legislature who had won respect for their contributions to the national policy debate lost their seats to intra-party rivals who spent more on electoral bribes.

These expensive campaigns in turn fuel a cycle of corruption in which successful candidates – whether they be at the national or regional level – need to recoup their “investments.” They do so by skimming money out of government budgets, inflating procurement costs, directing government projects toward favored cronies and using dozens of other methods. Such corruption in turn hampers the ability of the national government and local administrations to design and deliver good policy that will strengthen the public’s confidence in them. This public confidence is the long-term key to democratic health.

In other words, in the short term, corruption and money politics underpin democratic stability, but in the long run they undermine it. How to cut this Gordian knot without damaging Indonesia’s democratic stability is one of the core challenges that Joko’s government will face.


The significance of 2014

Before we get into exploring this conundrum, we need to ask: was the presidential election really so significant? In my view it was, and the year 2014 should be remembered as one of the most momentous of Indonesia’s modern political history. It was not simply that the presidential campaign was more bitterly fought and won by a narrower margin than previous elections. It also had potentially fateful consequences for Indonesia’s democracy.

For the first time we saw in Prabowo Subianto a presidential candidate who, though playing lip service to Indonesia’s democratic system, gave numerous signals that he wanted to seriously erode it. For example, he openly proclaimed a goal of returning to the authoritarian-era 1945 Constitution and publicly speculated that Indonesia would be better off without direct elections. He also, of course, came from the heart of the old authoritarian system, being a leading hardline general with a bad human rights record from the late Suharto years and the former autocrat’s son-in-law.

In contrast, Joko is purely a product of the democratic era. He has no elements in his personal biography linking him to power holders during the Suharto years. He came to national political prominence by winning direct local government elections, first by being elected mayor of Solo and later as the governor of Jakarta. This is a path to power that would have been unthinkable under the old authoritarian system.

Many Indonesians did not see it this way, but in my view it is reasonable to think of the 2014 presidential poll as having posed a choice between affirming and even deepening the democratic system built up since 1998 or heading back in the direction toward more centralized and authoritarian rule.

Of course, it is not at all unusual for a country that has experienced a decade or more of democratization to question or even abandon its democratic institutions. In fact, the major global trend for the last decade or so has been in precisely this direction. A few months ago, the US-based Freedom House found that in 2013 more countries experienced declines in political freedom than gains, the eighth consecutive year it had found such an ebbing of the global democratic tide.

Larry Diamond, a professor at Stanford University, has described the world as experiencing a “deepening democratic recession,” with both a leveling off of democratic progress in countries that made democratic transitions in recent decades, and a growing number of outright authoritarian regressions. And in country after country, it has been popularly elected chief executives who have played the most destructive roles in eroding political liberties and undercutting checks and balances in the very systems that brought them to power.

So in global terms, there was no surprise in seeing an authoritarian-populist such as Prabowo emerge as a credible challenger to the democratic system. On the contrary, political scientists had long been predicting the emergence of such a figure in Indonesia. And indeed, Prabowo’s personal style and presentation, as well as his emphasis on the importance of strong leadership as the solution to all of Indonesia’s political, social and economic ills, were reminiscent of populist-authoritarian leaders from recent times in other countries. He even expressed admiration for neo-authoritarian government leaders from elsewhere, such as Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra.

Despite his elite credentials, and great personal and family wealth, he depicted himself as a maverick outsider in classically populist style. The political appeals Prabowo based his campaign on – ultranationalism, condemnation of the corruption of the political class and promises of greater prosperity for the poor – were also very similar to those made by authoritarian-populist leaders elsewhere, including Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Interestingly, however, Joko in his own way tapped into many of these same emotions, but he did so in a way that lacked Prabowo’s confrontational style. My colleague at the Australian National University, Marcus Mietzner, has called Joko a “polite populist” (see his article earlier this year in the web journal, Inside Indonesia).

Joko did not condemn Indonesian politicians as liars and irredeemably corrupt, as Prabowo often did. Instead, he presented himself as a man of the people who was uniquely bonded to ordinary folk and thus able to understand their problems. His trademark “blusukan” style of campaigning – impromptu visits to marketplaces, villages and poor urban neighborhoods, where he would meet residents, laugh and joke with them, and talk to them about their lives, their troubles and their aspirations – was deliberately pitched to underline how he differed from typical elite politicians.

So both presidential candidates were, in different ways, populists, even if they were ones of very different sorts. This rise of populist politicians should be a warning sign, because such figures are typically a signal of dysfunction in a democratic system. People begin to put their faith in charismatic individuals when they start to believe that institutions such as political parties, parliaments and the judiciary are failing to serve their interests. It’s not hard to understand why some Indonesians would think this way when, among other problems, there is so much obvious corruption in the political system.

Yet, set against this, Indonesia is not facing a crisis of democratic confidence. In a survey conducted two weeks after the July 9 presidential poll, the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting group found that 57.3 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “Although it is imperfect, democracy is the best system of government for our country.” Only 5.5 percent agreed that an authoritarian or non-democratic government might be better. This is consistent with findings for more than a decade that show relatively high levels of support for democracy in Indonesia – much higher than among the citizens of many of its Asian neighbors.

It is this mixture of disillusionment with aspects of government performance, along with underlying faith in democratic governance, which helps us understand why many Indonesians feel attracted to populist alternatives yet ultimately went for the “polite” alternative of Joko. The new president presented himself as someone who not only understood ordinary people, but also knew what they wanted from government: better services and tangible improvements in their material conditions of life. He also offered many concrete steps for providing them with what they wanted, hence his emphasis in the various televised presidential debates on e-procurement and e-government systems, and on a new health care card system. The lesson? Indonesians want a better democratic government; they don’t want to do away with democracy all together.


The Yudhoyono legacy and perils of polarization

To understand these somewhat contradictory urges – popular disillusionment with aspects of democratic government but strong support for its underlying principles – we need to turn to the legacy of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency. This period in modern Indonesian history (2004-2014), I believe, will come to be seen as a period of both consolidation of democracy but also one of stasis. Indonesia in these years moved beyond the turbulence of the democratic transition proper (1998-2004), and its new democratic system settled into place. The achievements of 1998-2004 were locked in, but on almost every score the reform record of the Yudhoyono administration was, at best, mixed.

It’s possible to identify nearly any policy area and point to a general pattern of only partial reform and achievement during the Yudhoyono presidency. In the security field, for example, though progress was made in reforming military businesses, nothing was done to change the military’s outdated and potentially authoritarian territorial system. In bureaucratic reform, the promises were great but the civil service law that was ultimately passed in late 2013 was disappointing. In health care and education, which I shall return to below, ambitious new programs were launched but improvements in service delivery leave much to be desired.

Even in Aceh province, where the cessation of a 29-year conflict was one of the departing president’s most important achievements, there has been extraordinary delay in preparing implementing regulations that could lock in critical elements of the special autonomy deal that was critical to the 2005 peace deal. On the environment, Yudhoyono announced ambitious plans to rein in Indonesia’s contribution to climate change by slowing forest destruction, but the country has passed Brazil as having the highest deforestation rate in the world. In economic terms, growth has been reasonably strong, but inequality has worsened and poverty reduction has been much slower than was initially hoped. In short, there are plenty of reasons for Indonesians to feel somewhat satisfied with government, but few reasons to feel enthusiastically so.

Perhaps most important of all are the country’s anticorruption initiatives. One of the striking features of the Yudhoyono years were the dramatic moves taken by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to investigate and prosecute high-level corruption cases. The scalps claimed have been impressive: hundreds of government officials, lawmakers, governors and district chiefs, and the chief justice of the Constitutional Court. Jero Wacik, the minister for energy and mineral resources, recently became the third sitting member of Yudhoyono’s cabinet to be investigated for graft in the past two years. Indonesians can be justly proud of their anticorruption commission – it is a reform institution with few equals in the contemporary world.

One of Yudhoyono’s achievements as president was to withstand pressure to undermine the KPK. He faced calls from many quarters, especially from members of the House of Representatives (DPR) who felt threatened by its investigations, to weaken the body. But this was mainly a passive agenda: the president and his government did not undermine the anticorruption body’s campaign, but in other respects did little to advance it.

Moreover, many investigations of high-level corruption carried out by the KPK revealed that transactional logic remained an important glue of government functions under the Yudhoyono presidency. For example, investigations into the “oil and gas mafia” during the last year or so culminated in Jero being declared a suspect. (As Strategic Review went to press, Jero Wacik had not yet been arrested.)

The KPK’s investigations indicate that government agencies in the energy sector paid off members of the parliament to facilitate favorable consideration within parliament of agency budgets or smooth the passage of relevant laws. The prosecutions of Muhammad Nazaruddin, the disgraced former lawmaker and treasurer of Yudhoyono’s governing Democratic Party; Anas Urbaningrum, the party’s former chairman; and Andi Mallarangeng, the former youth and sports minister and a one-time Yudhoyono protégé, tell a similar story of graft.


All parties are corrupt

The key point, however, is not that members of Yudhoyono’s party were involved in corrupt dealings – members of all major political parties were. In particular, the House of Representative’s commission system, through which lawmakers are assigned to commissions overseeing a distinct policy area, is key to facilitating what might be called “participatory corruption.” This system allows all the major parties to gain can access to patronage resources, either in the form of corrupt payments or by directing part of the government budget toward favored constituents. Through these commissions, a wide range of lobbyist groups and special interests are also able to influence policy-making and budgets.

As a result, the DPR often produces laws that may have started out with a coherent reform idea driving them, but end up as patchwork, contradictory compromise deals. Little wonder that the House sometimes seems more like a forum for divvying up the patronage pie than an arena of robust debate about sound policy. Again, we are led back to the overall logic of power-sharing and resource distribution that characterizes Indonesia’s pattern of “promiscuous power-sharing.”

But if the costs of this approach have been high in terms of corruption and government ineffectiveness, we should remember that there is a positive side of the ledger, too. Indonesia has avoided the dramatic political polarization that has bedeviled other major countries that have recently undergone democratization. Think of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi failed to build a broad coalition in a highly fractious polity, prompting a popular backlash and the installation of a neo-authoritarian regime.

Closer to home, there was the pattern of collusive democracy in Thailand in the 1990s, in which one prime minister was accused of running a “buffet cabinet” with corruption the dish on offer.  This gave way to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s winner-takes-all logic, from which important parts of the entrenched Bangkok elite felt excluded. This led to the cycle of destabilization and military coups that has trapped the country for the past decade.

This is also another reason why the Prabowo campaign of 2014 was so unique. It had the potential, and still does, to bring a novel polarizing logic into Indonesia’s body politic. The tenor of his many public speeches was suggestive of a political leader who wanted to concentrate power rather than to share it. He also repeatedly and strongly condemned the established political class for being irredeemably corrupt and deceitful. He modified this language somewhat following his election defeat by pulling together a coalition of parties that have a majority of seats in the new House of Representatives. If Prabowo’s “Red and White Coalition” holds, it potentially signals a period of much more robust oppositional politics ahead.

The parties supporting Prabowo combined, one day before the presidential election, to amend the law on legislatives bodies in such a way that will make it easier for them to take key leadership positions in the DPR. As Strategic Review went to press, they were also trying to do away with direct local elections for governor, district chiefs and mayors, which would be a significant retreat for Indonesian democracy. We have the specter, for the first time since the ill-fated presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), of a parliament at odds with the president, and also potentially serious differences between regional and national governments.

Here we have a conundrum for the new president. One of the factors that made Prabowo’s challenge so strong is the fact that Joko explicitly rejected the “transactional” politics that have been so central to Indonesia’s political logic since the establishment of a democratic system 15 years ago. It’s still too soon to say, but the early indications are that the outcome is likely to be somewhere between these two extremes.

Precisely for some of the reasons we have discussed above – especially those related to access to patronage – it is likely that many of the parties that supported Prabowo will eventually gravitate toward the Joko government, even if it takes them some months to make this adjustment.

Many members of Golkar, in particular, have said that the party’s entire reason for existence is to the support the government. Jusuf Kalla, the incoming vice president, has said that all Indonesian political parties are like this, and he expects most of them to fall into line in and support the new government within its first few months.


Challenges for the new government

In the long term, of course, the health and survival of Indonesia’s democracy will depend on how well the government is able to improve the lot of ordinary people. Performance legitimacy is just as important for democratic regimes as it is for authoritarian ones. Ultimately, it is not only the tenor of elite machinations that will keep Indonesian democracy safe – or undermine it – but the new government’s ability to deliver reforms and improve performance, including in many of the areas where the predecessor administration had a record of only partial achievement. But the political framework, including the dynamics of collusive democracy and corruption that I have been discussing, is critical here because of its potential to frustrate reform efforts, as it has so often done in the past.

The list of areas where urgent action is needed is long. We would quickly exhaust the pages of this journal if we tried to be comprehensive, although special mention should be made of infrastructure development and education. The former is an urgent short-term task required to facilitate economic growth. The latter represents a critical medium and long-term priority that will hold the key to transforming Indonesia into a knowledge-based economy and lifting people out of poverty.

One example is health care and welfare reform. Joko made this a signature theme during the election campaign, brandishing health care cards at public rallies that he promised would allow all citizens access to quality health services. It’s also an area where he is building on considerable policy change and achievement. One of the least remarked-upon but also most profound transformations of the Yudhoyono years is that issues of social welfare – education, pensions and, especially, health care – moved to the center of political debate. To a large extent, provincial and district governments drove this trend, with image-savvy politicians introducing local health insurance schemes to appeal to voters in local elections. Joko himself was a pioneer at this, introducing popular health care card schemes in both Solo and Jakarta.

Yet, even dealing with this one sector rapidly entangles policy makers in fundamental issue of political economy, corruption and governance of a sort that can be traced to the political dynamics discussed above. Each sector of reform, whether it be infrastructure development, education, environmental protection or security sector reform, throws up its own distinctive challenges. But those challenges are equally embedded in the system of patronage politics that has become so deeply ingrained during the first 15 years of democratic governance.


Tenuous success

We should neither underestimate how far Indonesia’s democracy has come nor belittle its performance. President Yudhoyono’s record may be mixed, but Indonesia is still one of the great democratic success stories of the 21st century. Much remains to be done, but the achievements have been considerable.

There should be no room for complacency, however. The tenor of this year’s presidential campaign should leave us with no illusions that the debilitating political polarization and democratic regression that have afflicted so many other countries during the last decade would be unthinkable in Indonesia.

At the root of so many of the challenges facing contemporary Indonesia is the problem of corruption. Everybody knows this. During the election campaign, Joko himself said that the typical problem of Indonesian government in almost any area is implementation – almost everybody knows what needs to be done but nobody seems able to do it. One of the problems is that political actors who live off patronage have an interest in preserving complex and unworkable bureaucratic procedures. Joko’s near-technocratic obsession with the nuts and bolts of government administration, and his ideas about improving service delivery and transparency, could thus serve Indonesia well.

Yet corruption not only arises as a result of technical issues of administrative design. The overall political framework is also important. It is to be hoped that Indonesia, under its new administration, will strike a balance between the dominant pattern of collusive democracy and a new political polarization that was hinted at during and after the presidential election campaign.

A period of more robust and oppositional politics could serve Indonesia well, so long as it is based on respect for democratic institutions and does not lead to debilitating inter-institutional rivalry. The country needs to avoid sliding back toward the old pattern of participatory corruption, but it is equally important that Indonesia doesn’t stumble forward into a new era of inter-elite conflict. 


Edward Aspinall is a professor of politics in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. He is the author and editor of numerous books on Indonesia.

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