UCSC Currents online

Front Page
Awards & HonorsClassified Ads
Awards & HonorsUCSC in the News

May 10, 2004

Indonesian decentralization no guarantee of civil society, prof says

By Jennifer McNulty

The abrupt end in 1998 of President Suharto’s 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 Indonesia’s 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?’”

--Annette Clear
assistant professor of politics

That’s 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 the world.

As the war in Iraq fuels anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world, Indonesia’s 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 Indonesia’s 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 Indonesia’s 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 Indonesia’s 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, said Clear.

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.

Return to Front Page

  Maintained by pioweb@ucsc.edu
UC Santa Cruz Home Page Contact Currents Currents Archives Search Currents Currents Home Maintained By Email Contact