A survey of more than 500 experts found that transactional politics were perceived to be much more common in Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia than in the cities of Java. Photo by Aprillio Akbar for Antara.


Laments about “transactional politics” (politik transaktional) are a regular feature of discussions about Indonesian politics. Voters, as well as a few politicians, can be frequently heard complaining about how candidates get elected by handing out money, gifts or other personal favours. In the political science literature, such exchanges are referred to as “clientelism”.


Clientelism, or transactional politics, refers to the practice of exchanging personal favours for electoral support. This practice is regularly blamed for various challenges faced by Indonesian democracy, ranging from the weaknesses of Indonesia’s political parties, to the persistent dominance of economic elites in politics, weak provision of public services, corruption and even ethnic conflict.


Yet despite the perceived impact of clientelistic politics, we actually know very little about how common it is across Indonesia. Considerable disagreement reigns. Some observers consider politics to be highly clientelistic throughout the archipelago, dubbing Indonesia a “patronage democracy” run by “predatory elites”.


Others have argued that an increasingly vocal civil society is using newly gained civil liberties to curtail clientelistic practices. Such debates, however, have so far only been waged in general terms and no comparative assessment has ever been made. How clientelistic is politics in Indonesia, really? Is there variation across Indonesia, and how can we explain that variation?


In 2014, I implemented a new research method to take up this challenging question. I published the findings here, as well as in the forthcoming book Democracy for Sale (co-authored with Edward Aspinall). Together with 35 Indonesian researchers, we conducted a survey of knowledgeable experts. In 38 districts across Indonesia, we interviewed more than 500 journalists, academics, nongovernmental organisation (NGO) workers and campaign organisers. We asked them about the character of local politics. We did not ask them directly about clientelism – the term is too abstract. Rather, we asked them how, in their perception, local governments were distributing various resources and benefits.


For example, we asked “In your estimation, of all the major contracts that the district government awards, what percentage go to companies or businessmen that have supported the election campaigns of ruling politicians (district heads, governors, members of the local legislature (DPRD)) during elections?”. Similarly, the survey asked “what percentage of the [higher level] civil servants in the district government have been promoted to their current posting as a reward for supporting – openly or secretly –a candidate during elections?”. To assess vote buying, the survey used a slightly different yardstick: “What percentage of voters are given money or consumer goods during elections for district heads?”. By adding up the expert assessments for such questions, we could give each district a score to capture the perceived intensity of clientelistic practices, a “Clientelism Perception Index”.


This new approach made it possible to assess for the first time how common transactional politics really is in Indonesia and whether there is variation across Indonesia. The short answer: transactional politics is pervasive, but not all-pervasive.


I find considerable, yet consistent, variation across Indonesia: while clientelistic exchanges are perceived to be less intense throughout Java, particularly the cities, the surveyed experts consider these exchanges to be much more pervasive in Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia, including its provincial capitals.


These findings were relatively consistent in the sense that CPI scores within regions were generally similar, while the contrasts between regions were relatively stark. Further, the findings generally corresponded with my own fieldwork, as well as other qualitative studies, providing a measure of confidence in the results of the expert survey and the general pattern that it identified. This map visualises the results.


Clientelism Perception Index scores across Indonesia, where 0=no clientelism and 10=max.


These assessments make it possible to ask a new question: what explains the considerable variation in the perceived character of local politics across Indonesia? As I elaborate in a research article (open access), I find that the character of local economies has a strong effect on the character of local politics.


This is because the dispersal of economic power that comes with economic diversification can generate a more open public sphere and a more autonomous civil society. A more autonomous civil society – funded in a manner that is more independent of local governments and political elites – is more capable of scrutinising and disciplining the behaviour of politico-business elites.


In contrast, in regions in Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia, where much economic activity revolves around the state, being critical of powerholders carries much greater risk. In these areas, NGOs not only find it more difficult to fund themselves, but any kind of critical political behaviour is also more likely to have negative repercussions – as family members might lose their government jobs, government contracts might be cancelled, and there are fewer jobs outside the ambit of government.


In other words, the results of the expert survey and my fieldwork suggest that not only the character of politics varies across Indonesia, but also the character of citizenship. The scope for autonomous civic action and a critical scrutiny of the behaviour of political elites varies between regions. This scope for civic action is greater in areas where economies are more diversified and less dependent on natural resources (for example, in Java’s big cities) and smaller in regions that depend heavily on state budgets and/or natural resource extraction (for example, in Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia).


These findings thus also highlight an important downside of Indonesia’s strong dependence on natural resource extraction. This dependence on natural resources and, conversely, the small size of Indonesia’s industrial sector, contribute to the pervasiveness of transactional politics. While corroboration by more studies are needed, the findings of this study suggest that by curtailing the dependence on natural resource extraction and diversifying its economy, Indonesia could also pave the way for less clientelistic and cleaner patterns of local politics.


For more on the research findings discussed in this post, see “The Political Economy of Clientelism: A Comparative Study of Indonesia’s Patronage Democracy”, published in Comparative Political Studies, March 2018.


The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of the Australian or Indonesian governments. 


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