Can clients become citizens? Evaluating the new democracy in Indonesia

Political transformation means more than a few new institutions. It’s a deeply cultural process that lives in the history of every community.

Prio Sambodho
23 January 2015

Participatory planning in Indonesia. Credit: All rights reserved.

What does it mean to be a citizen? This may seem a simple question, but in the context of Indonesia today it may be the hardest one to answer. If citizenship is defined in terms of guaranteed access to basic rights and entitlements from the state, then there are no citizens in Indonesia. Thanks to a long legacy of authoritarianism, political patronage and weak institutions, access to services is governed more by personal connections than legal status.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1998, Indonesia embarked on the one of the most ambitious democratic reforms in the world through the ‘big bang’ of decentralization. A long list of political reforms was instituted, from direct elections for national and local government to the introduction of new institutions at the community level like the Village Parliament and the Village Empowerment Institution, which executes and oversees development projects. A national health insurance program was also introduced in 2014.

These reforms—widely adopted and copied by other countries and pushed hard by international donors—were designed to promote public participation and accountability as the foundation for broader social change. ‘Empowerment’ became the universal mantra. By exercising their democratic rights through new institutions like these, so the theory went, Indonesian villagers would be transformed from passive clients into active citizens. They would then be able to push the state further in the direction of equality and social justice.

What happened?

For the last six months I’ve been working in a small village in west Java to try and understand how these reforms have worked in practice from a ground-level perspective. What I’ve found—not surprisingly—is a much more complex picture of social and political transformation. Today, the villagers I’m working with are certainly more critical and politically savvy compared to 15 years ago. In a typical democratic cycle of five years, they may vote up to six times for candidates at the national level all the way down to their neighborhood leaders.

Communities have also been equipped with a sophisticated system of checks and balances in which the Village Parliament plays the role of a legislature in controlling the executive authority of the village head. It’s the national state in miniature, with its own consultations, budgets and laws. The intention has been to foster ‘good governance’ at and from the grassroots level.

However, when one looks deeper into the everyday lives of villagers there are clear signs that the old patronage structures are already subverting the new local institutions. For example, all the leaders in the village are elected, but the influence of money in these elections is rampant. The whole political structure is practically controlled by one family who contribute their money to ‘buy’ votes for the candidates they endorse.

As one villager told me “today, everybody can be a leader, even someone with no leadership, as long as they have enough money to buy the people.” Most of the villagers I talked with are fully aware of this reality and express their disagreement, but nevertheless they go along with it: “I know it’s not right, but all the candidates are doing that, so who should we choose? Besides, we don’t see it as buying our votes but as charity.”

To access services like health and social security, villagers rely heavily on mediators like community activists to help them navigate the scary and complex administrative procedures of hospitals and government offices. “It’s very complicated to use the [health] insurance card at the hospital,” said one, “so we need someone to take care of it, while we take care of the sick….It’s just easier to pay someone.” Possessing a health insurance card isn’t a guarantee of obtaining medical help, since dealing with the staff is often an agonizing experience.

That’s where the mediator comes in, since they can take care of all these hassles. The mediators themselves argue that they “just want to help people. The money they pay us is just to cover our transportation costs and our services. We never put a fixed price anyway” one told me, “It’s up to them how much they want to pay me.”

But the challenge of transformation isn’t only a matter of institutional reform, it’s a deeply cultural and personal process that lives in the history of each village, in people’s past perceptions and daily experiences—elements that are often overlooked by technocrats who assume that people will readily flock to new service centers, participatory meetings and opportunities to hold elected leaders accountable for their decisions.

Instead, distrust, fear and disappointment prevent people from engaging with the state in order to claim their rights. “One time,” said one woman during an interview, “I tried to go to the village head to ask about assistance with house renovation. He said he would help me and promised to visit my home. But two years on, still nothing. So that’s it for me, I will never ask for anything again.”

When I asked her why, her answer was simple: “it’s embarrassing to ask the same thing again and again once you get ignored.” ‘One strike is out’ seems to be the rule. 

The picture is complicated still further by the fact that citizenship in many parts of Indonesia is not based on individuality, but is embedded within communities where elites exercise a high degree of control over the lives of individuals. This is especially true in the case of women, whose rights to services and participation in decision making are heavily mediated by social institutions, including families and ‘traditional’ values.

“I really want to continue to high school,” said one teenage girl I met during a household interview, “but my father told me to just get married and work in a factory to ease their burden and contribute to the family, so I think that’s it.” It’s fatal to assume that the playing field of citizenship—and therefore transformation—is ever level.

One of the key factors in forging strong state-society relationships is trust, but trust in Indonesia seems harder and harder to come by, especially when people have a long history of being let down, harmed or violated by government institutions. What’s needed is a new ‘social contract,’ but that requires government to reach out and communicate with people in radically different ways. Institutional reform and strengthening are important, but ‘certainty’ is the key. As one villager put it: “we just want clear and easy rules when we go to a government office: how much does it cost? How long it will it take? So we know if we go there, we’ll surely get it.”

Debates about citizenship in Indonesia and other post-colonial societies should not depart from the assumption of individuals as autonomous, rights-bearing citizens, since that would inevitably produce a negative result when examined through the idealized lens of Western standards. But nor should it be assumed that clientelistic practices in Indonesia are static or immovable, since the actions of predatory elites are already being challenged.

Instead, we should focus on the dynamics of how ordinary Indonesians, especially those who are poor and marginalized, are mobilizing their resources to navigate the realities of unequal power relations and shape their own emerging notions of citizenship in terms of their rights and duties. Political transformation is a continuous state of struggle, negotiation and becoming.

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