The rot in Indonesian democracy has not been caused by the “excesses” of democracy, or poor understanding of democratic principles among the public, as politicians like to claim. Rather, democratic regression in Indonesia is largely the result of active efforts by anti-reformist elites to destroy the country’s new democratic institutions. But who are these elites, and how have they managed to hold onto power?
Political science scholars have proposed a range of theories to understand the organisation of political and economic power in Indonesia after the transition to democracy in 1998. Oligarchy scholars, such as Vedi Hadiz, Richard Robison and Jeffrey Winters, describe how elites have been able to survive the democratic transition and dominate Indonesia’s new democratic institutions. Other scholars, such as Michael Buehler, emphasise that some actors have become elites as a result of their control of important positions in government, rather than their relationship with wealth and material power.
I think wealth and material power are as important as political positions in determining who are the political elite in Indonesia. A third important variable is access to, and control over, policy. Through these three variables, we can identify four types of elites in Indonesia. The first of these are the oligarchs, people who control economic and political power, through which they are able to determine the direction of policymaking. In this group are the owners of large mining and media conglomerates, as well as founders and senior members of political parties.
The second group are economic elites, those people who control part of the economy but do not have any direct control over political or public institutions. Nevertheless, these economic elites do have the power to set the agenda and influence policymaking. Over time, their wealth, and proximity to political powerholders, means they can readily transform into oligarchs. Elites in this category include owners of major plantations, factories, tobacco companies and financial institutions.
The third group are the political elites, those who build their power through the possession and use of political organisations, like political parties. Initially they may only have power through the political party, and the access it provides to the state and policymaking. From there they may be able to use their access to resources to further expand their political and economic power. These political elites, too, may transform into a new class of oligarchs with time.
Political parties and positions of power in government are crucial means for the reproduction of elite power. A rich businessperson who establishes a political party can easily become a new oligarch if they are able to secure power through their party. On the other hand, an “old” oligarch who loses control over a political party can easily be thrown out of the elite circle of power. They might not become poor, but their access to politics will be limited, and, over time, the concessions and privileges they are used to receiving will start to fade.
The fourth group is the bureaucratic elite, that is the people who have political power because of their positions in the bureaucracy. Under the New Order, elites of this type were often described as holding politico-bureaucratic power. They can be considered elites because of the economic privilege that can be obtained through bureaucratic positions, including from their association with other power elites. Over time, these elites may accumulate political and business power, but they are never likely to reach the same heights as the elites above them, as they once might have under the New Order.
From time to time, the state bends to the interests of all these elite groups. Collaboration among oligarchs, economic elites, political elites, and bureaucratic elites to design a policy agenda that suits their interests can be seen in a variety of recent laws, regulations and policies. These include, most prominently, the omnibus Law on Job Creation and the revisions to the Law on Mining, both passed in 2020.
Elite power is reproduced through political and business organisations. Oligarchs use both to reproduce their power and they are guaranteed to remain in the circle of power. The reproduction of economic elites, meanwhile, is done by handing over their businesses to their family members, and having influence over political decision making so that the broader environment remains favourable to their business activities. Political elites, on the other hand, will always require political organisations to improve their positions, and gain access to the oligarchs and business elites who have much better access to state resources. Finally, bureaucratic elites who wish to gain more power must approach the elites in the other categories for support.
If this is all a bit abstract, it might help to look at a concrete example. There is no better example than President Joko Widodo, who was once praised because he did not come from the established ranks of elite power in Indonesia. But over time, he has accommodated the interests of oligarchs and economic elites to compensate for his political weaknesses, and facilitate his policymaking. He does not have a political party, so his position is vulnerable approaching the end of his time in power. It then becomes clear why he has attempted to become a “kingmaker” and quickly establish a political dynasty, by supporting his family members to secure political positions.
It is overly simplistic to describe the emergence of a Jokowi family dynasty as a particularity of Indonesian political culture. Political dynasties are a common mechanism for the reproduction of elite power by handing over the control of political organisations to children, spouses or family members.
Because of its historic structural weaknesses, Indonesian democracy has allowed old elites to continue to retain power, in collaboration with new power elites. Under the authoritarian New Order system, they were contained by the Soeharto regime. Now they are dispersed, forming their own concentrations, although they can come together to defend their interests. The future of Indonesian democracy will depend on the strength of challenges from below, and whether they can dislodge this new, expanding structure of elite power.
An earlier version of this article was published as “Elite Baru Indonesia” in Tempo Magazine on 2 April.