The state of local democracy

Down to Earth No. 46, August 2000

How far will local democracy be capable of counteracting the negative influences of the military, the economic crisis, the untrustworthy judiciary and endemic corruption?

During the Suharto years local level democracy was suffocated. Local governments rubber-stamped decisions made by Suharto and his ministers in Jakarta just as the national parliament did. At best DPRD members promised to submit reports and recommendations to central governments over land-grabbing or the violation of community resource rights. At worst they supported and endorsed the actions of security forces who were routinely sent in to deal with any opponents to the commercial interests of the Suharto family and their business cronies or to "development" projects like transmigration, the building of hydro-dams, and the Central Kalimantan mega-project. The strictly controlled political party system, which stifled freedom of choice, meant that there was no accountability to local populations. Villagers affected by damaging projects or subjected to intimidation and torture from the military and police could expect no positive result from taking their grievances to their "representatives" or through the courts. If they protested publicly they would be accused of being associated with communist or other illegal organisations, labelled as anti-development and anti-government.

Much has changed since Suharto was forced out of power. The emergence of democratic peoples' movements has gathered momentum from the new openness under Presidents Habibie and Wahid. Although the reform movement, which helped get rid of Suharto was largely Jakarta and Java-based, there has been a parallel development of local level democracy in many outer island areas, particularly where there is a tradition of strong NGOs and community organisations.

New local representatives were elected in June 1999 along with the national-level members of parliament and in some regions there has been much more dialogue than before between local parliaments and NGOs. In some cases discussion has been supported by funding from international donors, who see the fostering of local level democracy as a top priority.

The development of local democracy and the level of preparation for regional autonomy has varied from region to region. Some areas are adopting a 'wait and see attitude'. Others, like East and West Kalimantan (see case study) have taken a more pro-active attitude and have clear ideas about what they mean by regional autonomy, and what they want from it.


Ready or not?

The argument persists that regions are not "ready" for regional autonomy, with the spotlight mainly on governments at district level. These, it is feared, will be incapable of taking on the responsibilities of autonomous government all at once. The belief is widespread that local governments, used to taking instructions from Jakarta for so long, cannot be expected to change their mindset overnight and take responsibility for their own decision-making. An email article circulated by environmental group WALHI West Sumatra, argues that the lack of preparation for regional autonomy among local administrations shows how successful the centralist system was. "The dependency on central government cannot be swept aside just like that".*

There are two issues involved in this "readiness" argument. One is that central governments can use it as an excuse to hold onto power (as the Forestry and Plantation Minister is already doing). The other is a serious concern that there is almost no democratic tradition or experience of democracy in Indonesia. Here civil society groups must play a crucial role - in ensuring that their locally-elected representatives learn how to be democratic and conduct local affairs accordingly.

* Otonomi Daerah Terhadap pengelolaan Sumberdaya Alam Berbasis Kerakyatan Ancaman atau Peluang? 1/May/00