From New Order to Reformasi: Indonesian Subnational Politics in the Post-New Order Era

Discussions and studies on subnational politics in the Indonesia’s post New Order are of an interesting subjects. This is because subnational political issues could give diametrical impacts. The situation arises due to the overlapping interests between central and district government, inter-alia the establishment and redistribution of district autonomy. Hence, the overlapping has resulted in to two major implications. It has produced negative and positive benefits to the society.In terms of positive consequences, subnational politics contributes to the common benefits to parties that are involved. It has created a people’s oriented government servants and at the same time increased public services’ productivity and a better public relations services to the common people. Further-more, infrastructure projects tend to involve public opinion on its sustainability and suitability; health services has become more efficient, if not much better in some of the local districts. Indonesia’s local political conditions at the district level enjoy more freedom to nominate their own local representation, hence, has done away with the old practices of having leaders whose appointment and selection were decided by political elites in Jakarta. This new practice also witnesses an increasing participation, involvement and selection of women in the local political arena.

Nonetheless, subnational politics in the post-new order (Order Baru) period has also its own negative impacts. Hence the major purpose of this article is to analyze the challenges and problems of subnational politics in the post-Soeharto period. This paper argues that Indonesia’s political transformation process has been marred by political opportunists at local level, who seized the changing situation to their advantage. Sometimes they are labeled as free political riders who portray themselves as reformers and use all avenues of political logic to survive in a new political environment. Although these free riders were part of manipulative actors during the New Order regime, they were quick to adapt to the new role as if they are also true reformers in the post-Soeharto period. Their manipulative political strategies then led to some interesting questions—why do these manipulative political strategies exist during the transformation period of Indonesia’s politics? Has it to do with the political legacy of the New Order period?

The paper is organized into several sections. The first section would review existing literature on the Indonesia’s post-Soeharto period by discussing issues on subnational politics in various parts of the archi-pelago. The second section analyses Indonesia’s subnational politics during the New Order/Soeharto period, and finally the paper analyzes the dynamics of Indonesia’s subnational politics, in terms of issues and challenges in the post-New Order period.


UNDERSTANDING CONCEPT AND THE UNIT OF ANALYSIS Indonesia’s politics in the post-New Order is

basically a reflection of societal resentment against the old style politics of authoritarian rule, which was repressive and centralized. This so-called “new poli-tics” also witnesses the birth of polycentricism phenomenon—a regional collective struggle that reject old ideas of governing deemed to be undermining local identity and power.

According to Laclau & Mouffe (1985), Escobar & Alvares (1992), Mohan & Stokke (2000), this phe-nomenon is a kind of movements or struggle that went against the idea of centralization (which for such a long time has accumulated its strength and power to weaken regional politics either in its formal and informal form). As a result, subnational economy becomes static. The situation also resulted in a strong cultural resistance (i.e. the creation of movement campaigning for local wisdom values) calling for alternative solution to the development of districts. Laclau & Mouffe (1985), Escobar & Alvares (1992), Mohan & Stokke (2000) also argue that the new political culture backed by civil societies is an avenue for struggle to recreate local identity that has been denied by the earlier autocratic regime.2

Social resistance movement through civil society did succeed at the end of 1980s in Eastern Europe, especially when some of those countries collapsed due to the end of the Cold War (Diamond, 1994; Wellhoer, 2005). This shows that the role of civil society is very important in creating a new political phenomenon that expounded the idea of polycentricism. They acted as the agent for the empowerment of civil society and at the same time as a guardian of check and balance mechanism to the government’s political activities.

The impact of this new politics and polycentricism has changed Indonesia’s local political landscape at provincial and district levels. District autonomy, redistricting, and direct election for district head (Pikilda) are some of the examples. Nonetheless, not all changes brought about by this new politics create common benefit to the public. In India, for instance— the biggest democratic country in the world, democra-tization has triggered new challenges to local politics. It has in fact strengthened the caste and class politics in the society (Hansen, 1999). As a result, the dyna-mism of subnational politics in India has also exposed its local politics into a lucid political manipulation.

The phenomenon also happens in Camaçari, Brazil. Camaçari’s “New Political” wave encourages a new set of political values—”clientism” between economic and political interests of elites. It leads to a governing malaise of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and non-func-tionality. This can be seen when local district’s finan-cial independence was robbed by political and eco-nomic elites (Schönleitner, 2004). The elites, either in the executive or legislative branches, equally benefit from the local district financial wealth to protect their clientele and cronies. By manipulating the legislative process at subnational level, the elites in Camaçari influence government decision and policy that benefit them and their cronies. One of the major impacts of this process is the emergence a political master and local strongmen who become dominant formally in a local political scene.

The emergence of informal political elite in local politics is a common phenomenon in a new demo-cratic country. In the Philippines, its people’s power politics has been marred by the advent of informal elite who become interested in the political process (Sidel, 1999). These economic elite not only start to involve in the national political arena but have slowly infiltrated into subnational level.3 The aim is to capitalize their position in politics for economic interests. They have managed to capitalize local district’s economic wealth by expanding their eco-nomic financial portfolios. This was done through land concession, law enforcement, appointment and promotion of public officers and government contract distribution. Sidel (1999: 156) points out that several provinces in Cavite, Cebu, and its surrounding area have been filled with industrial parks, golf courses, housing estates, tourist complexes—thanks to local economic bosses cum politicians who use their power to set the pace of development in their locality. They not only have the unlimited power to decide on the issue of area expansion, land acquisition to build roads, contract allocation, but also to deploy local police for specific tasks such as to counter demonstra-tion by labor movement or to forcibly evacuate people from squatter areas.

The same situation also happens in Thailand. McVey’s study in shes book entitled Money and power in provincial Thailand (2000), points out that eco-nomic bosses and local strongmen are a political reality for the country. They are known as chao pho (read: jao poh) or ‘the protective father’.4 The presence of ‘protective father’ is not a new phenomenon for Thailand yet its position and role has strengthened ever since the 1973 democracy incident. They can be easily identified for their monopolistic traits and active involvements in every aspect of Thai’s economic activities from mining, transportation, agriculture, printing, banking and others. The chao pho are also actively involved in contraband and illegal activities such as drug trafficking, smuggling and gambling (Arghiros, 2001).

Prior to 1973, the “protective fathers” were known for their involvement in providing protection for the local political elites. They were known for their ability to use force if necessary, and to garner some financial strength locally. But when the country moved to political transformations, “the protective fathers” acted as political and economic brokers” to the local politics. This was made possible since they had all the influential networking and followers. They could also contribute “votes” in local election to candidates who desperately needed to win. Through this link of support, cronies of “the protective father” managed to garner power and financial sources. Several chao pho even managed to stand as candidates for a parliamen-tary election and won. Narong Wongwan (a well-known drug trafficker who has been barred to enter the United States) and Kamnan Po (a well known godfather from Chonburi province) are some of the examples (Arghiros, 2001).

It can be concluded that, based on the discussion above, democracy and democratization do not neces-sary produce positive impacts to the society. It can produce the opposite impact such as in Nigeria in 1983, Peru in 1992, and Sierra-Leone in 1997—just to name a few cases.5 Even if democracy runs smoothly in a particular country, it has to undergone various adaptation processes (political alignment or political adjusment) and in some instances produces political anomalies. Among these political anomalies is the emergence of economic bosses who become part of the political elites or strongmen in local politics. Their presence is correlated with and could affect political centralization as a result of polycentricism processes. This situation has been labeled as modus vivendi between the weak state and strong society. It contributes to local strongmen’s political consolida-tion through increased role and influence in subnational politics.

Based on the above discussion, it can be argued that Indonesia’s subnational political issues has to be studied not only from the structural aspect (i.e. autonomy and good governance, public relations and management and, other structural characters), but also has to be understood and perceived from the aspects of the agencies involved. The political transforma-tional phenomenon that was briefly discussed above show the increasing role of local strongmen in the Indonesian post democratization process. Hence the analytical framework that will be used in this paper is based on local strongmen’s impact (the negative side) (Migdal, 1988) on the dynamism of democratization process. According to Migdal (1988: 256), local strongmen and economic bosses are social control due to the fact that:

They have succeeded in having themselves or their family members placed in critical state posts to ensure allocation of resources according to their own rules, rather than the rules propounded in the official rhetoric, policy statements, and legislation generated in the capital city or those put forth by a strong implementor.

Furthermore, Migdal states that the argument is based on three inter-related points. First, local strongmen’s strong growth is associated with close-netted society. They managed to get greater influences compared to that of other local leader or bureaucrats. Secondly, local strongmen also manage social control in the society through the strategy of survival. The logic is that these local strongmen create societal dependency on them, thus creating a legitimacy that nly local strongmen are capable of solving societal problems. Local strongmen would become patron to the society— especially for the underprivileged. Third, local strongmen directly weaken state and local government’s capacity to administer the province of the district.

Author : Leo Agustino & Mohammad Agus Yusoff