Indonesian Politics

One nation, worlds apart

Indonesia’s 17,500 islands are home to one of the most diverse populations on earth. Is shifting power from Jakarta to other urban centres the best way to unite the archipelago?

Nithin Coca
March 17, 2015
One nation, worlds apart
Different strokes: Indonesia has more languages than all of Europe combined. Photo: Ahmad Zamroni / AFP

How do you manage a nation with more languages than all of Europe combined? How do you achieve harmony in a country with significant populations of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists? How do you push unity in a land made up of thousands of dispersed, often hard-to-reach islands?

Indonesia accounts for almost half of Asean’s population and GDP. Therefore, its ability to govern itself is not just an issue for its 250 million people, but for the entire region. Much like its diverse citizenry, its history of governance is also a mixed bag, from left-wing authoritarianism to military dictatorship to today’s multiparty democracy that many consider the most vibrant in Southeast Asia.

The current situation did not come easy. After three decades of strong central control under Suharto – beset by cronyism, regional tensions and separatist conflict – the country has, since 1998, embarked on a path of decentralisation. Power has been shifted away from the capital, Jakarta, creating a more diverse, representative government that comes closer to matching its varied population.

“Suharto ensured loyalty and patronage, as well as interest, by handpicking leaders in key areas in the regions. It is therefore not surprising that devolving centralised power was high on Indonesia’s reform agenda,” said Sandra Hamid, Indonesia representative for the Asia Foundation.

However, Indonesia also feared disintegration. Its leaders were acutely aware of the situation in Yugoslavia following the death of Marshal Tito in 1980, and there was a real fear that giving power to the provinces would empower regionalism, which could lead to a breakup and violence.

The solution was to decentralise differently. The provinces would remain, essentially, weak – as they had during the Suharto era. Instead, the country’s myriad districts and cities would be empowered.

“The assumption, quite correctly, was that there would be less galvanising power at the district level that could lead to the balkanisation of the country. At the same time, this policy provides more space for citizens to articulate their interests and be part of the nation,” said Hamid.

Districts across the archipelago were given vast fiscal powers along with direct control over civil servants, education, infrastructure and greater responsibility in providing essential social services. This was subsequently tied in with direct elections for regional positions such as mayors, so that politicians could be held accountable by citizens.

As such, it is no surprise that the most well-known of Indonesia’s new wave of politicians are not provincial governors, but mayors. They are the ones who have the power to manage local institutions in Indonesia’s democratic era.

Decentralisation does not come without its downsides. According to John Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, these can include “cases of unneeded infrastructure, white elephant projects, because more people can get their hands on [disbursed] money”.

Capacity is also a challenge according to Rachmad Erland Danny Darmawan, an academic expert in Indonesian governance at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Java.

“Decentralisation did not take into account the inequality of regions, so it produces perverse effects, especially in poor and less developed regions,” he said, citing East Nusa Tengarra and the provinces of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) as places where decentralisation has not yet brought economic benefits and corruption has grown.

Another byproduct is that national initiatives can be more difficult to implement. For example, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made reducing deforestation a major goal of his administration, but decentralisation had ceded control over natural resources control to the regions. Therefore Yudhoyono was unable to stem the tide of illegal timber harvesting in Kalimantan, where local politicians gained greatly from continuing the practice. 

Worse still, the national legal system has not yet proven capable of handling situations in which district laws contradict national laws, as happened in 2013, when alcohol prohibitions in 22 districts – a clear violation of Indonesia’s secular constitution – were unsuccessfully challenged by Jakarta.

“Some areas of policy-making need more leadership from Jakarta to function better, and possibly decentralisation should be rolled back slightly in these areas,” said Kurlantzick.

Despite these challenges, Indonesians overwhelmingly favour both democracy and regional autonomy, especially in areas where popular politicians have emerged. One example is Ridwan Kamil, the mayor of Bandung, Indonesia’s third-largest city. He supports decentralisation because he believes that a one-size-fits-all policy won’t work in Indonesia.

“With the freedom of regional autonomy [local officials] can improvise and innovate for solutions. Problems in Bandung can have different solutions to [the same] problems in Bantaeng,” he said at a public seminar in Jakarta, adding that regional autonomy reflects the true meaning of the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – Sanskrit for “Unity Through Diversity”.

In a short period of time – Ridwan was elected in September – the mayor has used the powers given to the city by decentralisation to renovate and open new public parks, relocate street vendors away from busy roads and has pushed forward Bandung’s long-awaited monorail plan, which is expected to break ground in July. Ridwan is also promoting the use of the ethnic Sundanese language and engaging citizens to participate in urban renewal through the ‘Bandung Fun Days’ programme.

Ridwan is one of a new generation of innovative mayors now found throughout the archipelago. There is also Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s Chinese-Christian mayor; Tri Rismaharini, the female mayor of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city; and, most famously, Jokowi, whose rise from furniture salesman to mayor of Surakarta, also known as Solo, and now the presidency, would not have been possible without decentralisation and direct elections.

Some, especially those who benefited under the old order, are unhappy with these new, populist politicians. This tension caused the Red-White Coalition, which supported defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in the 2014 election, to take the dramatic step in parliament of eliminating direct elections for regional office. The move was made in September, just before the new administration took power, and would have seen mayors, governors and their deputies appointed by state legislatures, most of which are under the control of the Red-White Coalition.

The majority of Indonesians were aghast at the idea, and a massive public campaign, most visible on social media under the hashtag #ShameonyouSBY, pressured then President Yudhoyono into coming out against the change, which parliament finally dismissed in the middle of January.

For Hamid, direct elections are key: “Decentralisation… has to be coupled with people’s ability to actually choose their leaders to manage the power that has been devolved from the centre.” The people, it appears, agree, and the defeat of Prabowo’s anti-elections platform was a huge victory for Indonesian democracy.

Though regional autonomy has empowered many regions in Indonesia, it has not always been applied evenly, most notably in West Papua, Indonesia’s most restive province. There, protests have been ongoing, and tragedy struck in December when Indonesian police fired on an unarmed crowd of civilians in Paniai district, killing five.

Annexed in 1967 in a military-run election, in which about 1,000 hand-picked representatives were forced to vote to join Indonesia, Papua was ruled with the strongest of iron fists during the Suharto era. One reason that decentralisation has yet to be put in place here is the still-powerful presence of the Indonesian police and military on the resource-rich island. The government-controlled forces are in charge of ‘maintaining order’ so that natural resources – a massive source of revenue for both the military and the police, as well as the Indonesian government – can continue to be extracted.

Benny Wenda, an exiled Papuan and spokesperson for the Free West Papua Campaign, does not believe that even decentralisation can mend what he sees as ongoing, entrenched repression. “Even with Indonesia’s false promises of autonomy, the killings have continued unabated and Papuans have still not been given their fundamental right to self-determination,” he said. “We do not believe that any outcome other than full independence for West Papua can ever be a solution.”

Constraints such as an oppositional parliament, limited executive control over the military and the need to consider national sentiment exist at every level of Indonesia’s political hierarchy. Even the president – Jokowi supports regional autonomy in Papua – has his hands tied, no matter how much he would like to address the situation.

“Jokowi has said and done some positive things, such as not simply trusting that Papuan police and security forces are in the right, and trying to rethink Papua policy,” said Kurlantzick. “However, I don’t know if he will be able to seriously alter the situation there, which is more intractable than any in the country since East Timor voted for independence.”

East Timor was offered an independence referendum in 1999 – the same deal that West Papuan activists want – but the still troubled situation in the former Indonesian province shows that decentralisation, despite its benefits, cannot solve all of the archipelago’s autonomy problems. For a start, its effectiveness varies not only between the country’s diverse islands but, at its most basic level, even from district to district.

Nevertheless, such positive steps are a key reason why Indonesian democracy, considered so fragile by pundits in 1998, has proved surprisingly resilient and even serves as a model for many developing nations. It has allowed a new generation of politicians to bring fresh ideas to the table and finally begun to answer the question of just how to manage one of the world’s most diverse nations. 

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