May 10, 2004
Indonesian decentralization no guarantee of civil
society, prof says
By Jennifer McNulty
The abrupt end in 1998 of President Suhartos 32-year authoritarian
regime in Indonesia was considered a major victory for prodemocracy
forces, but the new decentralized government may yet thwart the development
of Indonesias nascent civil society.
When I started this research in the mid-1990s,
people kept asking me, Why would you want to study Indonesia?
said Clear. Now the question is, How soon will your
book be out?
assistant professor of politics
Thats the assessment of Annette Clear, assistant professor of
politics, who recently gave a campus talk entitled, Indonesian
Decentralization and Civil Society: Opportunity or Obstruction?
Decentralization may foster democracy in Indonesia, but it could pave
the way for unintended consequences, including the resurgence of the
military, said Clear.
With 235 million people, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in
As the war in Iraq fuels anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world,
Indonesias role in global politics is being closely monitored
by governments, investors, and international aid agencies. The downfall
of Suharto ushered in the opportunity for significant change, but Indonesias
future is far from certain, said Clear.
When I started this research in the mid-1990s, people kept asking
me, Why would you want to study Indonesia? said Clear.
Now the question is, How soon will your book be out?
Designed to chip away at the power of the previous authoritarian
regime and to enhance democracy, decentralization has been viewed by
most analysts as a boost to participatory democracy. But Clear has identified
ways in which it could hinder the growth of civil society. Her research
for a forthcoming book is being supported by a 2003-04 Divisional Research
Award from the Social Sciences Division.
Since the fall of Suharto, fiscal and administrative authority throughout
Indonesia has been delegated to 357 separate districts. A portion of
oil, gas, and other revenues now remain at the local level.
But the effort to build regional autonomy throughout the archipelago--described
by one author as a managerial nightmare--may be too
little, too late, said Clear.
Begun in 1999, the process of decentralization was uncoordinated
and undemocratic and lacked input from Indonesias different
regions, said Clear. External forces, including international donors
and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), exerted strong influence.
Indeed, the process of decentralization was sped up to meet the
funding cycle of the Asian Development Bank, said Clear, adding
that the bank subsequently celebrated the new system as not externally
imposed or inspired but authentically Indonesian in its
genesis and design.
The scope of foreign investment in Indonesia is significant--the World
Bank and the Asian Development Bank have a combined $2.7 billion invested
in the country--and potentially problematic, said Clear.
If international support for Indonesian NGOs is viewed by the state
as external intervention in domestic affairs, it could prompt
the government to take retaliatory actions in the form of further restrictions
on civil society, cautioned Clear. NGO engagement with the international
community could trigger a nationalist backlash and charges that NGOs
represent foreign rather than domestic interests, she said.
If older Jakarta-based NGOs collapse under the challenge of reaching
out to Indonesias geographically widespread regions, it could
reinvigorate centralized authoritarian rule, said Clear.
A weak state and civil structures could lead to the resurgence of the
Indonesian military, which retains its territorial command structure,
But decentralization also affords opportunities to help indigenize
Indonesian civil society. It could give Indonesians a larger role in
NGO proposals regarding the domestic political agenda, should give local
stakeholders greater access to policy makers, and could broaden the
role for religious organizations and others in civil society.
Finally, the separation of local and national elections, which are
currently held simultaneously, would underscore decentralization by
further weakening Jakarta-based politics.
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