December 2008 Dispatch - Democracy and Decentralization in Indonesia: Ten Years after Suharto

At first sight, political turmoil in Thailand and the Philippines—repeated violent protests, impeachment battles, and military coups—gives the impression that democracy in Southeast Asia is on a downward spiral. One country in the region, however, has sustained a stable pluralistic democracy: the Republic of Indonesia.

In 1999, after thirty years of Suharto’s centralistic, authoritarian rule, Indonesia embraced far-reaching decentralization and election reforms. Within a brief period of two years, the Indonesian government reshaped its administrative architecture, including the devolution of local tax and service responsibilities to more than 400 district governments. In view of its deep-seated authoritarian traditions, beginning with Javanese kingdoms and sultanates, moving through Dutch colonialism (1619–1942), and ending with Suharto’s New Order (1965–98), Indonesia’s rapid shift toward democratic decentralization stands out as one of the most remarkable political transitions in recent history.

Particularly notable is the peaceful and competitive conduct of Indonesian elections. Over the last decade, local citizens have elected more than 30,000 local councilors and over 400 mayors, regents, and governors, with little violence or intimidation. High voter turnouts (around 70 percent) and high replacement rates of incumbent executives (roughly 40 percent) bear witness to rising electoral competition in local polities. While subnational elections display considerable flux, the upcoming presidential elections in July 2009 suggest continuity. The latest national polls, for example, predict a comfortable lead for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (49 percent) over his main competitor, Megawati Soekarnoputri (36 percent).

The institutionalization of democracy and decentralization, however, has yet to translate into substantive public sector reforms. Indonesia continues to score low in global governance assessments. According to Transparency International and the World Bank, Indonesia’s government ranks 126th (out of 180) in terms of corruption, and 129th (out of 181) in terms of administrative efficiency for business start-ups. With the introduction of regional autonomy, these governance problems have, to a considerable extent, been decentralized to hundreds of districts. Yet, despite formally uniform institutional settings, local governments exhibit vast differences in regulatory quality, administrative efficiency, and anticorruption measures.

What motivates some local governments to perform better than others? Implicit in this question, which stands at the center of my research, is the idea that local democracy is not only an end in itself, but also a means for improving government outcomes. The pronounced policy differences that arise in Indonesia’s district polities provide a good opportunity to examine the workings of Indonesian local democracy or, to use a different terminology, the political economy of local decision-making.

The findings from controlled case comparisons and subnational datasets suggest that policy variations are best explained by differences in government leadership. Good policy environments emerge primarily in cases where local regents and mayors, whose career aspirations are tested by direct elections, skillfully use their office powers to forge reform coalitions and supervise bureaucratic practices. Societal reform pressures that arise from local parliaments, business chambers, and nongovernmental organizations, in comparison, tend to be less significant drivers of good governance. While broad-based interest groups continue to struggle with collective-action problems, district council members seem more concerned with provincial/national party elites (and their party list positions) than with representing local constituencies. Thus, in Indonesia’s early stage of democratic transition, where societal pressures are yet to fully unfold, much seems to depend on leadership efforts to initiate, facilitate, and oversee government improvements.

Under what conditions, then, are local leaders likely to act in the public interest, rather for private gain? While direct elections provide basic incentives, the direction and strength of these incentives also hinge upon existing socioeconomic structures. Government leaders need to accommodate interests of powerful economic groups in order to secure support for campaign funding and co-investments in public goods. Whether these interest alignments result in unproductive rent-seeking and corruption, or in constructive government reforms, depends on the constellation and transparency of economic powers.  The more economic powers become concentrated in specific sectors, groups, and firms, and the less public-private interactions are monitored by local media, the greater the likelihood that leaders will pursue self-preferential and collusive strategies.

As a result, it is plausible to assume that a moderate economic concentration and strong media presence are conducive to better governance. At this point, only some districts fall into this category. But as globalization and communication technologies progress, local polities are bound to become more economically diverse and politically informed. With growing political awareness and increased incentives for better leadership, it is likely that Indonesia, over time, will see more public-private symbioses for reform and, thus, bridge the gap between well-functioning elections on the one hand and poor governance
on the other.