Indonesia’s upcoming presidential and national legislative elections might be dominating the national media, but another set of smaller scale – and largely overlooked – elections have recently been held across the country.
Throughout 2022, hundreds of villages across Indonesia voted in village head elections, known as pilkades, including in my home district of Tebo, Jambi. In some villages, elections were marred by conflict, while in many others, like Tebo, the polls were held without incident.
Village head elections were made possible by the twin processes of democratisation and decentralisation that followed the demise of the Soeharto regime in 1998. These elections have a noble intent – to bring democracy to the lowest level of public administration in Indonesia. But looking at recent elections, this goal still seems a long way off.
To start with, money politics has now been normalised in villages across the country, from Sumatra, to Java and Maluku. Both voters and candidates have listened to the message sent by the ruling elite in Jakarta that offering money in exchange for votes is a normal part of the election process.
Many Indonesians now see village elections as an opportunity to obtain as many gifts from as many candidates as they can. Given many voters are deeply sceptical about the whole process, and feel that the outcome of the election will have no real implications for their lives, taking money from each candidate seems not only morally acceptable but almost necessary. The candidates play along, too, and offer as much money and other incentives as possible.
The end result is that village head elections end up being more like ceremonial events to elect the richest candidate, with little meaningful discussion or engagement with democratic ideals. The consequences of this practice are detrimental –not only for democracy but also for the villagers themselves.
Given the high costs involved in distributing money and gifts, village heads, once elected, are often more concerned with recovering money spent during campaigning than they are with improving the lives of the villagers they lead.
In some cases, village heads choose to form unhealthy relationships with local elites, who offer to bankroll their campaigns in exchange for certain benefits. For example, a district head or governor might sponsor a village head’s campaign with the expectation that the village head will then convince residents to vote for them in regional head elections. An example of just how entrenched these kinds of relationships have become is that village heads recently threatened to “destroy” political parties if they did not support a proposal to extend the tenure of village heads’ leadership from six to nine years.
Some village heads also decide to dip into village funds (dana desa) to recover the capital they have spent or repay the elites who funded them. And there is plenty to dip into – following the passage of the Law on Villages (Law No. 6 of 2014), the central government began transferring funds directly to villages to assist them to tackle local development challenges. The total value of the Village Fund has increased every year, and is now worth more than Rp 60 trillion (AU$5.8 billion), with each village receiving about Rp 960 million, on average.
The problem is that there is often little transparency over the use of these village funds. There are reported cases of village heads using village funds for holidays, under the name of “study tours’, and even buying private vehicles. In fact, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has said as many as 686 village heads were involved in corruption cases between 2012 and 2021.
A second major concern is that in many regions, village head elections often end up as contests between long-established ruling families and emerging ones, both of which tend to have significant material wealth. This can mean that family allegiances often influence voting decisions.
Having a family member at the pinnacle of village government can boost the pride and dignity of a family in their village and beyond. It can also be a way for other members of the extended family to secure positions in the village head office. And of course, it offers the winning family access to significant wealth, albeit illicitly.
The dynasty building process can also be symbiotic. For village heads, their position is stronger because they are supported by members of their extended family in the village organisational structure. Meanwhile, young, less experienced members of the extended family can secure a job with decent pay and usually lenient working hours.
In resource-rich villages in areas like Sumatra and Kalimantan, a village head can also draw on his or her patronage networks to secure employment for family members on nearby plantations or mining companies. These employment opportunities are highly desirable at the village level, where jobs are scarce.
This can mean that voting decisions end up being family oriented, rather than being based on any democratic considerations. Failure to vote for a family member is considered “treasonous” and may lead to exclusion from the extended family.
There is also evidence that efforts to establish political dynasties at the local level can extend beyond the executive to the village council, or BPD. Elected village heads often handpick family members and loyalists to run in BPD elections. This strengthens the dominance of the village head’s family while at the same time weakening a key source of political pressure and accountability.
Why are these two problems so widespread but rarely discussed? One reason is that media are generally absent from Indonesian villages. This media desert is particularly obvious in regions outside Java, and is a major concern for districts with no existing tradition of local journalism.
My home district is a prime example. The relatively new district of Tebo has not had a single local media outlet in its almost two-decades of existence. The region was once covered by a few outlets from neighbouring districts, but it was always considered peripheral, and coverage tended to be elite-centric.
While digitalisation has paved the way for more local media to emerge at the district level, there are still few examples of media at the village level. Further, the majority of new entrants in the local media sphere face the same problems that have plagued Indonesian journalism for decades: a willingness to simply repeat the statements of local elites and failure to perform their duty as public watchdogs.
Many village residents are highly critical of mismanagement in their villages, and the corruption of local village heads. But if they do not have local media to convey their concerns, their grievances remain unaddressed.
Indonesia needs to focus efforts on resolving the problems associated with village elections. In fact, the government does appear aware that the high levels of social tension generated by village head elections is a problem, arguing that this is why it will back the proposal to extend the tenure of village head leadership to nine years.
But while the proposal might sound promising, it is doubtful it will solve the problem. Longer term limits could end up making village head elections even more intense, because these positions would now be more secure and lucrative.
Efforts also need to be made to educate citizens about the harmful consequences of money politics. Oversight of village fund governance also needs to be strengthened, to minimise opportunities for embezzlement.
If these issues are not tackled soon, the next round of village head elections will be just as undemocratic as the last.