Blog: 2015: The revenge of Indonesia’s political class

Indonesia’s democratisation process is a case of the half-full glass. Pessimists argue that elections have descended into an ugly spectacle of vote-buying and manipulation that does little to distribute power in a more even fashion. They point to the important role of money in running for elections, ensuring that only well-connected and wealthy candidates can get elected. On the other end are many optimists, particularly within Indonesia, who point out that democratisation has not only led to a livelier and more discerning public debate, but also to the emergence of progressive, reform-oriented politicians. As proof, they point to the popular Surabaya major Sri Wismaharini, Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahjaya (‘Ahok’) and to the previous mayor of Solo and now-president Joko Widodo. These are all ‘new’ politicians who appear serious about tackling Indonesia’s pervasive corruption and political inequality.

So which side is right? Recent local elections provided an occasion to evaluate how far Indonesia’s democratisation process has travelled. On 9 December 2015, 260 districts heads and 9 provincial governors were elected simultaneously for the first time across Indonesia. As part of a larger project on local politics in Indonesia at KITLV, we have been studying the election outcomes and the backgrounds of the candidates. The results are, by and large, sobering and suggest that indeed a relatively narrow political class still enjoys a major competitive advantage over outsiders. This shows, firstly, in the background of candidates. Of the 695 candidates in our database, more than 70 percent was either a sitting politician or a senior bureaucrat. Of the remaining 30 percent, 25 percent were local business actors. Given that such entrepreneurs are usually also often closely tied to sitting elites, it can be argued that only the remaining 4,5 percent of candidates – consisting of teachers, journalists, NGO-activists, doctors – were real outsiders. Particularly noticeable is the high number of civil servants running for election (27 percent), a peculiar feature of Indonesia’s young democracy.

The dominance of a sitting political class also shows in the election outcomes. Of the 109 sitting district heads running for re-election, 69 (63 percent) came out victorious. When they lost, this was often against their own vice district heads, who won a further 10 per cent of district head positions. This success rate is particularly surprising given the fact that since 2005 at least 343 district heads have been accused of corruption. Another striking feature of these election results is the low success rate of business actors. Only 18 percent of business candidates that run actually manage to win. By comparison, civil servants were much more likely (27 percent) to be successful. Such results suggest that, while having money is important, at least as important for electoral success is having control over the bureaucracy and its resources.

In this way the 2015 elections were a disappointment. The results do not show a deepening of Indonesia’s democracy. The high success rates of incumbents and civil servants suggest that those in control over government budgets can still use that control to remain in power. For some years Indonesia’s political elites have been put on their back foot by waves of corruption cases and the successful election of outsider-president Joko Widodo. In 2015 Indonesia’s political class exacted their revenge. They showed that a more even distribution of power in Indonesia is still a long way off.

(Ward Berenschot is a researcher at the KITLV,  working a book on local politics and clientelism in Indonesia and a coordinator for research programs on Citizenship and on Clientelism in Indonesia. See www.informalpolitics.orgCharlotte Wagenaar is a lecturer in public affairs at Leiden University, and a collaborator on the KITLV research project ‘Shades of Clientelism’.)

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