Democracy for Sale by Edward Aspinall and Ward Berenschot

What is remarkable about the free-wheeling, rough and tumble style of Indonesian politics, as compared to other “third-wave” democracies like Mexico, India and Brazil, is that every sphere of state life is essentially governed by an off-the-books shadow state. In Democracy for Sale, Edward Aspinall and Ward Berenschot assess the informal networks and political strategies that shape access to power and privilege in the messy political environment of contemporary Indonesia. The trading of cash, favors, small projects and other material awards is the daily stuff of politics in a country where most elections are simply a contest of who is willing to offer the most cash. During negotiations with would-be candidates, political parties and local officials extract stiff prices as well as promises of future benefits in exchange for the backing of communities they represent.

It’s not uncommon that community brokers are not connected to a particular candidate from a political party but are simultaneously working for candidates from rival parties, seeking out the most generous candidates. Bids are weighed from several candidates before deciding on whom they will support. “Elected” office positions such as mayoralties, chiefs of police, forestry heads and other civil servant posts are sold to the highest bidder. Vote-buying has been developed into a science. In the so-called “dawn attack” leading up to an election, campaigners distribute large amounts of money to voters. The widespread practice of transactional politics (politik transaksional) is neatly summed up in the Javanese phrase demokrasi wani piro, or “How much do you dare to pay?” The huge amounts of money exchanged amounts to state power essentially being auctioned off.

After Indonesia’s “big bang” decentralization in which political authority and budgetary powers were devolved to hundreds of district regional governments all around the country, it was initially thought that it would improve governance by bringing government closer to the people. That would allow, it was argued, for better monitoring of government officials. But it soon became obvious that the primary outcome of decentralization was to shift the centers of predatory behavior downwards, allowing for the multiplication of corrupt government bodies and the proliferation of informal deal making. Vote buying and political corruption have since become the order of the day. Some scholars have even pithily observed that Suharto had practiced a “higher class” of corruption because it was centralized and more predictable.

Case studies of real politicians viscerally bring Indonesia’s political landscape to life: the martial arts commander who hopes the candidate he backs will build him a new training facility; the youthful style of a 36-year old new breed of leader, so different from the aloof attitudes of his older Bapak colleagues; the DPR member who gave Rp10,000 to each voter in his electoral district in exchange for a new asphalt road; the Timorese parliamentarian who spent a billion rupiah to set up a free rice hulling plant and distribute free fertilizer to local farmers; the Islamist party candidate who handed out large amounts of cash for livestock projects and school construction to get votes.

For their extensive and systematic study, the authors have made use of an expert survey designed by Berenschot and executed with the help of 38 Indonesian researchers who meticulously interviewed more than 500 hundred people in sometimes difficult circumstances. One of this fascinating and powerful book’s lessons is that scholars of Indonesian and more broadly comparative politics need to take the role of informal politics more seriously in their studies of the Indonesian political system. What visitors may view as formal rules and sanctioned behavior on paper are not followed. The practices of favoritism, nepotism, collusion, the exchange of favors and monetary inducements are not aberrations, deviations or failings. They are the norm. They are not lingering remnants of the old Suharto regime but have evolved, adapted, persisted and even expanded into the present day. No new rational democratic order, no new constitution, no refreshed judiciary system has yet developed since those heady days of decentralization starting in 2000. These practices have consolidated and grown stronger as decentralized democracy settled into place.

This prodigiously researched book portrays what really goes on behind the newspaper reports that one reads of high-profile corruption cases linked to politicians or donors or alleged cases of vote buying. Those cases are mere microscopic instances in a widespread pattern of clientelistic politics playing out all over Indonesia. Democracy For Sale unlocks the inner workings of day-to-day politics beyond such formal institutions as the presidency and the DPR and what is reported in the media. It presents an upside-down view of government, a “politics of the belly” in which political actors of all sorts try to extract maximum material benefits from the political system. Nevertheless, the very pervasiveness of the country’s quid pro quo money politics, conducted as it is on a highly pragmatic basis, makes the whole system somehow function.

Democracy for Sale: Elections, Clientelism, and the State in Indonesia by Edward Aspinall and Ward Berenschot, Cornell University Press 2019, ISBN-978-150-173-2973, 330 pages, 4 black & white line drawings, 2 maps, 2 charts, glossary, appendixes, index, dimensions 15 cm x 23 cm.


Review by Bill Dalton

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