Democratic deepening in Indonesia: Challenges for the new administration
October-December 2014
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.

Please login to leave a comment