Measuring democracy in Indonesia's borderlands

While democracy may seem to be working in Indonesia on a theoretical level, a look into the impoverished province of Papua tells a different story.

Bobby Anderson
5 September 2014

A demonstration by West Papuans in The Hague, against the Indonesian government. Wikipedia. Public domain.

Two yardsticks exist by which we can measure Indonesia’s ongoing democratic transition.

The first, of course, is the recent 2014 presidential election. Joko Widodo or ‘Jokowi’, a successful small businessman who became the mayor of Solo and later, Jakarta, won the presidency by roughly 8 million votes. The losing candidate, ex-special forces commander and Suharto-era insider Prabowo Subianto, disagreed with the majority of voters, as did his coalition of oligarchs and religious fanatics. The Koalisi Permanen’s bond was found in a simple-minded belief they could bend reality to fit their ambitions: they sowed confusion through dubious quick-count tallies and allegations of widespread fraud, and then filed an unsubstantiated case with the constitutional court, which rejected it. Many an Indonesian bemoans the state of their democracy, but something, indeed, is working.

The second yardstick applies to Indonesia’s macro-level democratic transitions in pursuance of a viable state-citizen compact. Measurements are found in the way that people and government interact with one another on a regular basis: in government offices, in hospitals, in schools and so on. This measurement is taken through the availability of services, and relative levels of transparency and accountability; it is also taken through the nature of civilian interactions with police and military. 

The application of this yardstick in Indonesia’s regional cores - in Medan, Padang, Jakarta, Surabaya, Denpasar, and Makassar, for example - leads to relatively positive results. A raucous civil society has taken root in these cores since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. Education and health services are available, bribery occurs at an acceptable level, and justice is a relatively recognizable concept.

Applying this yardstick in Indonesia’s margins is more troubling. Post-Suharto governance and security reforms seem to have completely bypassed much of eastern Indonesia. Despite (or perhaps because of) decentralization, these areas have proven resistant to change. And it is in such borderlands that the overall health of Indonesia’s transition can be gauged. 

Indonesia’s fringes are often as rich in natural resources as they are poor in equality and participation, and a skewed relationship exists between local elite politicians empowered under decentralization and many a leftover New Order oligarch. In Kalimantan, the Malukus, Nusa Tenggara Timur, and other less-known provinces, the members of local political dynasties take bribes to award contracts to Jakarta-based conglomerates controlled by the likes of Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Aburizal Bakrie, and others, in order for them to earn windfall profits from coal, palm, timber, metals and minerals. These contracts don’t account for the people who live on the land in question: they often find out about it when they are ordered by police to move. Elections in such areas are bought, or fixed, and democracy is seen by grassroots participants as a shell-game or a way to earn 50,000 rupiah. In the brief history of democratic Indonesia, people in the borderlands vote without any expectation that their lives will become one iota better: mere electoralism in place of democracy. 

Nowhere is the trinity of resource exploitation, resistance to reform, and lack of development as stark as in Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. The application of both yardsticks there produce troubling measurements:

Papua’s colossal natural resource wealth - its coal, gold, copper, oil, gas, and fisheries - is regarded by the state as a national security issue. But how the state regards Papua’s people is less apparent. If government policy toward Papuans is to provide them services in order to turn them into healthy, educated citizens that participate in civil and economic life, then that policy has utterly failed. Papuans have the lowest life expectancies in Indonesia, the highest maternal and child mortality rates, the lowest educational levels, and the lowest incomes. 

Indonesian government policies implicitly place Papuans into three categories of engagement-  the co-opted, the traitors, and the rest.

Co-opted Papuan elites benefitted from Post-Suharto administrative reforms, when they were recruited heavily into the civil service, and even more so when state responsibilities and accompanying budgets were passed to districts. No matter that most districts lacked the capacity to provide the services they assumed responsibility for. Decentralization led to pemekaran, administrative osmosis that creates new districts at a viral rate. These entities are approved by the Indonesian Legislature’s commission II, whose members, completely ignorant of minimum standards for such proposed entities, OK new districts at the behest of their political parties, in order to award a supportive local leader, often at the expense of another. New districts are theoretically supposed to be more responsive to citizens, but in Papua they are nothing but a way to access national subsidies directly and award no-show jobs to clan members. Amidst the chaos of contemporary Papua, the province now has double the national average of civil servants. Papua’s special autonomy law is another boon for elites and a failure for everyone else. It returns the majority of Papua’s extracted wealth, in order to improve health, education, and other services. It devolved into a slush fund, with much of the wealth absorbed by administrative costs or simply unaccounted for. 

The next category is traitors. The Dutch handed over Papua to the UN in 1961 before an Indonesian administrative takeover and an engineered referendum. The area hosts the last active insurgency in Indonesia, even though it is so small that it is a law and order issue. Any imagined manifestation of treason is punished regardless: the government’s aversion to separatist symbols has led to heavy sentences for those who wave them. In an example of Orwell’s 2 + 2 = 5, the government simultaneously denies that such prisoners are political. Select security actors pursue any whiff of treason, but their rabbit hunts occur in an anarchy that is acceptable so long as indigenous leaders agitate against one another and not the state. 

And then there’s the rest. In the hinterlands where most indigenous Papuans live, the presence of the state is found in shuttered schools and empty clinics. Papuans are left to their own devices, to die from easily remedied complications in pregnancy or preventable diarrheal diseases, for example. The majority of Papuans support independence because the state has no relevance in their lives.

The tools that were supposed to serve these people - decentralization, pemekaran - were flawed before they were ever put in Papuan hands, and it is no wonder that they have been completely misapplied. Indonesia’s policies toward Papua over time look less like a devolving of powers and more like an abdication of the state’s responsibility toward its poorest citizens. At the grassroots, Papuan civil servants with no-show health and education jobs are complicit in the denial of services to people who desperately need them, but the primary responsibility lies with Jakarta’s decades of neglect. Special autonomy is showcased as an example of governmental munificence, but it has been the vehicle by which Papuan elites have driven their people into a wall.

Applying the yardstick of elections to measure Indonesia’s democratic transition in Papua is even more troubling.

While many Papuan leaders are co-opted by Indonesia, they in turn have co-opted the electoral process, especially in the highlands, where up to half of the eligible voters on district-level rolls do not exist, and the ones that do exist often have their votes cast for them by unelected indigenous leaders through ‘Noken’, a subversion of the democratic process dressed up as a supposedly ‘cultural’ practice. Highland district election commissions are complicit in this systematic and recurrent fraud. Noken is ironically a re-branding of the system that allowed 1,020 co-opted indigenous leaders to vote for Papua to remain in Indonesia in 1969. 

This rigged system will allow a small clique of highlanders to dominate Papuan provincial and legislative politics into the foreseeable future. They will work in cooperative partnership with national-level political figures who are also leaders, or at least investors, in those same corporations that seek contracts to extract Papua’s natural wealth.

The drama of Indonesia’s presidential election has come to an end. Indonesians voted for an administrator at the expense of a king. Prabowo’s ‘permanent coalition’ is disintegrating, and soon he will be last, reminiscent of a squat, powerful fish angrily finning its life away on a boat deck. Great strides have been made in Indonesia’s democratic transition.

The benefits of such strides remain to be seen in Papua. The ballots cast freely there went overwhelmingly to Jokowi. Papuans responded to his talk of the commonweal: this was a brief flowering of democracy in a field left barren from experience, and it is perhaps the last opportunity Indonesia has to engage Papuans in a system they rightly feel excluded from.   

Dostoevsky wrote that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons: the conditions of the state’s weakest and least-represented peoples. And so Papua serves as a bellwether: for the health of Indonesia’s democratic transition, the integrity of the electoral process, and for the responsibility assumed by the state toward its poorest and least-represented citizens.

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