JAKARTA – Indonesia will hold regional elections on Dec. 9, but Mardiana Deren, a land rights campaigner from the Dayak ethnic group on Kalimantan, is in two minds about what difference the poll will make.
Deren has sought to curb the clearing of forests and spread of oil palm plantations on Kalimantan, or Borneo, but despairs of getting political support for her cause.
“I have not found any candidate who could be a sympathizer and not sure I would find any,” she said.
Despite being an award-winning campaigner, Deren was non-committal about contesting elections herself. “I would need a lot of money to stand,” she said, discussing how parties and candidates have to find the cash to run often expensive election campaigns – an outlay that often blurs the line between legitimate expense and vote-buying and can leave the winning candidate in debt to powerful businesses.
After the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the subsequent fall of the Suharto dictatorship, democratizing Indonesia implemented an ambitious decentralization programme in the early 2000s, granting some political and economic decision making powers to provincial and local authorities and allowing directly elected heads of local government and elected regional assemblies.
“Envisioned as a means of restoring political rights to citizens, disrupting the country’s pervasive patronage networks, and quelling calls for regional autonomy, Indonesia devolved extensive governmental responsibilities to the sub-national level,” wrote academic Harold Crouch in a 2010 study of Indonesian politics after Suharto.
But a decade and half on from decentralization, there remain vast disparities between Indonesia’s better-off western islands of Sumatra and Java, on the one hand, and poorer eastern islands and regions around Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua and Nusa Tengara, on the other. That is despite financial transfers from central government to the regions making up 30% of total government spending in 2014, a rise from IDR 81.1 trillion in 2001 to IDR 596.5 trillion.
Responding to a survey that indicated 60% of Indonesia’s regional governments had failed to bring about increased living standards since decentralization, Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said in Feb. 2015 that those regions had lagged on raising their own revenues, with the minister blaming corrupt local leaders. Around a third of district heads have been investigated for corruption by Indonesia’s anti graft agency – known by its Indonesian acronym KPK – rolling scandals that almost saw Indonesians lose the right to directly elect local leaders in a national parliament vote in Sept. 2014.
Likely seduced by the prospect of handouts from Jakarta, lobbying by local politicians and allies in Jakarta resulted in number of administrative regions in Indonesia swelling from 314 in 1999 to 542 in 2014 – a proliferation that President Joko Widodo wants to halt.
But Widodo has nonetheless pledged to look beyond Java, Indonesia’s economic powerhouse, as he attempts to implement a vast and costly infrastructure modernization program taking in better sea and air links between Indonesia’s far flung islands, which in time – if implemented – could help spread wealth more equally across the archipelago.
Java is home to 40% of Indonesia’s 250 million population and produces almost 60% of GDP, despite taking up only 7% of the country’s land area. Together Java and Sumatra make up 82.4% of GDP, with the remaining sixth spread across the vast and far flung islands and regions from Kalimantan to Nusa Tengara to Sulawesi and eastward to Maluku and Papua.
The percentages are mirrored, almost, in the figures for manufacturing, though these in fact show an ever greater focus on Java, which hosts 83% of all manufacturing plants in Indonesia according to government statistics.
For now, however, even as Indonesia’s economic growth lagging around 2.5% below Widodo’s 7% per annum objective, Java is bucking the overall trend, with growth on the island topping 5% in the first 3 months of 2015. However resource-rich provinces such as Aceh, East Kalimantan, Papua and Riau all saw their economies contract over the same period, as demand slowed and prices fell for coal, copper, gas, oil and palm oil.
But that is not to say that Indonesia’s decentralization has been a failure. After all, Indonesia is a vast country, extending 3,000 miles across and encompassing 13,000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups. Significantly reducing economic disparities across such a complex behemoth was never likely within a decade and a half – not least as before the colonizing Dutch were forced out in the late 1940’s, there had never been a state approximating to colossal archipelago that makes up modern Indonesia. Moreover, after independence, Indonesia saw decades of tightly centralized government under Sukarno and then Suharto.
Decentralization, when it came, helped bring peace, at least in Aceh, Indonesia’s western-most province. There, a 30 year secessionist rebellion came to an end after the devastation wrought by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 170,000 people in the province. But the fact that decentralization had already been implemented across the archipelago showed the Acehnese that Jakarta was not as wedded to centralized control as in the past, paving the way for a peace deal, the granting of significant autonomy to Aceh, and a decade of relative calm compared with the 3 decades of violence that went before.
Kurniawati Nia, a lecturer at Aceh Polytechnic, said that the dark days of conflict are but a vestige. “The relationship is good compared with the previous situation,” she said, discussing links between the national government in Jakarta and her homeland in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, where Widodo’s vice-president Jusuf Kalla is popular due to his key role in brokering the 2005 peace agreement.
President Widodo started his political career as mayor of his hometown Solo in central Java, a rise facilitated by giving Indonesians the right to directly elect heads of local government, a key aspect of decentralization. Decentralisation, in effect, helped Indonesia acquire its first president from outside the old dynastic and army elites.
But a year into his presidency, Widodo is finding out that decentralization is literally fueling the fires of the latest crisis to beset his troubled administration.
Another downside of Indonesia’s decentralization, it seems, is that it spurs the deforestation that has campaigners such as Mardiana Deren so up in arms. According to Abetnedgo Tarigan, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, or WALHI, candidates who need to fundraise for elections are at the mercy of big business, who make donations on the premise that their interests are looked after once the candidate wins office.
In rural areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan, where fires are started to clear forest for plantations – causing a lung-clogging smokey pall to fall over parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand – the upcoming elections are contributing to a problem that has soured Indonesia’s relations with its neighbors.
“Leading up to the local elections, the number of the concessions awarded has increased sharply. One billion rupiah for an estimated one thousand hectare offorest. It is so enticing for local administrators,” Abet told a forum in Jakarta on Sept. 19.Show