The Newsletter 75 Autumn 2016

Electoral dynamics in Indonesia

Kevin Evans

Reviewed title: Edward Aspinall and Mada Sukmajati (eds). 2016. Electoral Dynamics in Indonesia: Money Politics, Patronage and Clientelism at the Grassroots. Singapore: NUS Press, ISBN 9789814722049 

This volume contains an incredibly valuable treasure trove of insights that delve beneath the legality of Indonesia’s electoral system. In doing so it shines a light on the good, the bad and the ugly ways people win elections in this country. As for the good, many of the tactics and strategies deployed would be quite familiar to candidates elsewhere in the world in both new and established democracies. Building campaign teams, information networks, contact points and understanding community needs are the nuts of bolts of functioning democracies anywhere.

Another feature of contemporary Indonesian electoral politics, noted in this volume, is that the political ‘bad’ of electoral violence is largely absent. Even in Aceh, a region whose people have long suffered from civil strife, levels of violence and intimidation are now declining towards the national norm. This also reminds that efforts at future electoral and wider political reform need to take account to preserve those positive factors that represent the strengths of the existing system all the while redressing those areas that are poor and in need of redress.

The volume also reveals other unusual dynamics. Most notable is mutual candidate support at different levels (from national, provincial to local) and quite intriguingly among candidates across parties but based upon other primordial affiliations that transcend partisan loyalties. This finding should beg for further research and understanding certainly by party leaders.

Indeed this issue also offers an insight into another element of the political system in Indonesia that calls for more detailed exploration, namely the very weak and frail structure and place of the political parties. Frequent references by party activists interviewed to the old Soeharto era concept of the ‘floating masses’ in terms of politically disconnected voters reminds us that it is actually the political parties that are floating. They are clearly unanchored from community and ultimately very vulnerable. The impact of the open list PR system on the further enfeeblement of the party system needs to be seen in the context of the wider problem of the incapacity of parties to regularise internal political competition without degenerating into monarchies or splintering into several parties. The impact of the latter has been to thwart the emergence of genuinely large parties despite all the regulatory efforts to restrict the entrance of new parties into the system.

Public and media attention with the great and powerful individuals who dominate their respective parties have led many to presume that parties are powerful. This volume strips such perceptions naked. The ease with which party structures are breached through cross-party alliances of candidates, the fact that candidates effectively rely on their own resources, efforts and networks, rather than party networks and resources, in addition to the electorally self-destructive conflicts among candidates, suggest the party structures are anaemic and impotent.

The key ugly issue revealed in virtually every case study was the dangerous penetration of money into electoral processes. The incentive to compete publicly with members of one’s own party for votes, a practice both reflecting and causing the lack of internal party cohesion, coupled with the almost universal reference to the intensified deployment of money directly to voters in 2014, constitute challenges to the healthy consolidation of Indonesia’s democratic systems. 

The frequent observations that distributing money and other semi-valuable goods to voters using euphemisms and hiding behind the social legitimacy of religion and culture when doing so reflects a wider ‘fog’ of obscurity in Indonesia that seeks to cover the stench of corruption with the fragrance of cultural and religious legitimacy. As such it links electoral corruption with wider forms of corruption found elsewhere in Indonesia. It suggests that practitioners recognise that what they are doing is wrong, even sinful, but that they believe they can make it palatable through deploying (abusing) the legitimacy of cultural and religious symbolism. Other common refrains to emerge included the impact of incumbent candidates’ access to legislated slush funds to support initiatives in their electorates. This implies a distinctly unlevel playing field among candidates.

A number of case studies presented information indicating that even where money was deployed, it was not always a guarantee of electoral success. Equally the special public funds incumbents could deploy as pork barrelling were also shown to be less than a guarantee of re-election. Many case studies suggested that this may because the candidates concerned were simply not ‘professional enough’ to make optimal use of these financial resources and manage networks of clientelism rather than suggesting that money as such was not enough. The wider impact of the increased resort to money to secure election victory begs the very question of who actually pays?

Since the 2014 election ever more MPs have been arrested for corruption, not from the election process as such, but rather since they have taken their seats in Parliament. The almost complete removal of public funding since 1999 has left the parties almost totally dependent for serious contributions upon the wealthiest of citizens to be viable. The ‘privatisation’ of electoral funding is reflected very sadly by the concept that campaign funds are not seen as contributions but rather as investments. The predominance of the logic of the market is sorely in need of redress from the nation’s elite to its grass roots. Pushing back against these political investors will surely not be easy especially when a popular view from civil society in Indonesia is that public funding is a form of ‘legalised corruption’.

The impact of non-transactional and microlocal factors including personal and familial connections on the potential for victory, while generally sidelined as determinants of potential success or failure, nonetheless did break through. Several writers noted that despite all the gamesmanship around the campaign period party leaders did also concede glumly a mood shift by voters. A better understanding of what leads to this shift in voter mood would be a very valuable future form of research. Comments like ‘the party had long been the dominant force in local politics, and many former supporters were becoming disappointed with its performance’ suggest a clear need to explore what moves voters beyond the tactics of campaign time. Could it be that voters also take account of the performance of their elected leaders and their governments in deciding how they will vote regardless of who pays them or how much? Do these members of the voting public represent a significant enough number that party leaders and incumbent MPs should actually consider their actual performance for the almost five years leading up to the campaign period?

While the studies provided sobering insights into the dynamics of the open list PR system for electing party based MPs, including women, in the House of Representatives from national to local levels, they provided essentially no information on election to the second chamber of the national Parliament, namely the House of Regional Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah). Given the exclusion of parties from that House plus the much higher levels of victory by women in the House of Regional Representatives and the operation of four-past-the-post, not PR, for election to the House of Regional Representatives, the potential for comparison and the learning of lessons that might better inform the dynamics of election to the House of Regional Representatives suggest a major opportunity was forgone.

The timing of the release of this volume could hardly be better. The country will soon begin to focus on further improving its electoral systems and procedures. The detailed information provided at quite granular levels offers excellent evidence of the impact of the electoral system and of wider issues of electoral management.

Kevin Evans, Founder (