The Proliferation of Political Piracy in Post-Suharto Indonesia

‘Give back our customary land and territories.’ Banners in land protests, Jakarta, January 2012.

DTE 91-92, May 2012

Book Review: Vedi R. Hadiz, 2011, Localising Power in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia: a Southeast Asia perspective.

The capitalist economy that evolved in Indonesia during the New Order era of President Suharto was a 'predatory form of capitalism... [that] essentially rests on the appropriation of public resources and institutions for the purposes of private accumulation' (p. 166). It was an intensely elitist and corrupt political economy that collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions during the 'Asian Crisis' of 1998. How, though, was the country to replace this system once the one-party dictatorship had fallen?

Neo-liberal policy advocates pushed for decentralisation, democratisation and multi-party politics as the way to promote free markets, increase transparency and accountability, and break the deadlock of autarchy. A new political class should thereby evolve that actually represented the will of its constituents. Liberal NGOs supported such reforms as a way of promoting local, more democratic alternatives to globalisation, closer to local people's wisdom and environmental prudence.

This fascinating book, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, explodes the wishful thinking that underlay such dreams, showing them up for a form of technocratic anti-politics that failed to grapple with the real bases of power in Indonesia (and other similarly patrimonial political systems in southeast Asia - the book is powerfully informed by comparable stories in Thailand and the Philippines and wider afield).

Instead of ushering in a cleaned up political order that would promote efficient and more socially just capitalism, the process of decentralisation in Indonesia has instead facilitated the proliferation of the same predatory elites, once dominant in Jakarta, to populate every corner of the country. Decentralised Indonesia now has over 500 district and city polities. Now we see, at the local level, a strengthened and expanded political class who buy office through money politics and who furnish their ambitions and pay off their supporters with preferential access to State contracts and access to natural resources. The result has been to entrench rather than eradicate the KKN - corruption, collusion and nepotism - of the Orde Baru.

Such money politics consists of auctions of electoral candidacy by political parties which act as gatekeepers to power (about 20% of election costs, Hadiz guesstimates), outright vote buying, rigging of elections (though not ballots), media campaigns and, albeit mainly in the cities, pay offs to local gangsters (preman). According to the best information available, getting elected as a district head (bupati) requires a campaign 'war chest' of around US$1.6 million, although the costs vary from place to place, of course. These sums are dwarfed by the billions of dollars required by politicos seeking control of the larger cities.

A simple conclusion based on this analysis would be that the 'right' institutions fallen into the 'wrong' hands make for the 'wrong' result. Plus times minus equals minus, right? Wrong. Hadiz persuasively eschews such naivety. When in the mid-2000s further electoral reforms were introduced to make bupati directly accountable to their electorates, the direct elections only deepened the penetration of money politics into the social fabric. The campaign war chests just had to be bigger. Echoing an article from Inside Indonesia by Marcus Mietzner, Hadiz concludes 'direct elections did not facilitate the rise of new political elites, they simply forced the old elites to play by new rules' (p.162). The mistake was to impose the wrong kinds of institutions without taking account of the real political economy.

There are other important lessons in this book. Hadiz shows that even though democratisation has allowed greater social mobilisation and a flourishing civil society, the gap between them and power holders, between rich and poor, has only widened. Reformasi through decentralisation has neither addressed the concerns of workers, as the economic crisis, mass underemployment and elite manipulation has kept the labour movement fragmented, nor those of the revitalised movements of peasants and indigenous peoples, whose lands continue to be expropriated without compensation in favour of industry cronies and (though Hadiz does not mention it but as we know) for expanding pulp and paper and oil palm plantations. Most support from politicians for indigenous peoples' demands has either been tokenistic - a vote-buying tactic - or pushed by adat elites seeking to reclaim power - 'the return of the Sultans'.

This is a compelling study but it is not flawless. There were other reasons for Indonesia's experiment with decentralisation, a political option that can be traced back to the disappointments of first Vice-President Mohammed Hatta's unfinished revolution. The book can be faulted for building an argument on a relatively narrow number of examples, many of them urban. It is quite repetitive. The too-often-repeated mantra about 'predatory elites' should have been fleshed out with more details about just what kinds of predation Hadiz is really talking about: who exactly are the prey and what have been the impacts of this predation on peoples' lands, livelihoods and environments? There is no subaltern narrative here. The book is political economy not political ecology. Still, I found it an exhilarating and refreshing read and one which makes sense of what one observes on the forest frontier. Even the recent, anomalous crack down on bupati involved in illegal logging makes better sense in Hadiz's analysis. Here we see not the virtuous assertion of the rule of law - ecological justice at last - but the self-interested attempts of Jakarta bureaucrats seeking to recentralize their control over the forests which they consider their private fiefdom. They, not jumped up nouveaux, should be the ones making money from forestry.

Hadiz shows us the real character of Southeast Asian patron-client capitalism, which, he argues, cannot be reformed by imposing politically blind institutional and market solutions that were crafted for the very different political cultures of the West. Tempering globalisation with localisation is a perilous game. This is a remarkable book, but it is not an encouraging one.


Marcus Colchester

Director, Forest Peoples Programme.



Vedi R. Hadiz, 2011, Localising Power in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia: a Southeast Asia perspective, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore. ISBN:978-981-4379-34-2. 247pp. Pbk