Syahrul Yasin Limpo, an unlikely democratic hero
Every year, the development industry in Jakarta churns out ‘update’, ‘stock-taking’ and ‘rapid appraisal’ reports about the progress of democratisation and decentralisation in Indonesian local politics. Often these reports deal with the great complexity of their topic by focusing on the behaviour of individual politicians. Virtually every report picks out a few ‘reform-minded’ individuals and portrays them as leaders who are both ‘responsive’ and ‘responsible’ to citizen demands. These heroes of reform are then celebrated as pushing forward Indonesia’s democratisation and decentralisation against the interests of ‘old elites’ and ‘entrenched interests’.
In provinces, districts and municipalities that have been blessed with such ‘good leadership’ change is happening, so the story goes. In localities where ‘bosses’, ‘little kings’ and ‘predatory forces’ rule, in contrast, progress is depicted as stagnating. In this context, multilateral organisations have outdone each other over the past decade in their praise for half a dozen so-called reformers running the executive government of places such as Gorontalo (Sulawesi), Jembrana (Bali), Solok (West Sumatra), Sragen and Kebumen (both Central Java). Frequently discussed in the expatriate bars in Jakarta but rarely visited for in-depth research, these places loom large in the minds of development consultants. Stories abound of how the executive government heads in these few regions place the will of the people above everything and offer ‘best practice’ examples to other politicians scattered across the archipelago.
The simplicity and naiveté of such a Jesuit worldview, in which ‘good’ fights against ‘evil ‘, have been exposed by developments that have quietly unfolded in Indonesian local politics over recent months. Suddenly, one of the good governance heroes has advocated dismantling a pillar of local governance reform, while the predators are proving to be more interested in defending democracy.
The reformer who became a conservative
In late 2009, only a few weeks after he was appointed Interior Minister, Gamawan Fauzi proposed to abolish direct elections for governors. Such elections had been introduced in 2005 as a way to empower citizens. They have shaken up the way local politics works. Now, Gamawan Fauzi argued, direct elections for governors were too costly due to the rampant money politics and vote buying associated with these races. At the same time, such direct elections would facilitate the establishment of local dynasties, he claimed. The new minister suggested reviving the system that was in place before 2005 in which provincial parliaments elected governors.
Ironically, Gamawan Fauzi owes much of his stellar rise in Indonesian politics to these direct elections, and for a long time he was the poster boy of the development agencies, lionised as the main example of the new breed of local leaders winning their way to power by delivering good governance and reform. Appointed district head of Solok in West Sumatra in 1995, he won (indirect) elections in 2000. In 2005, people elected him as Governor of West Sumatra province, a post he left a few years later to become interior minister.
In past years, I sat through countless meetings and workshops in which donor agency folks busily constructed a narrative about Fauzi’s meteoric rise to the inner circles of the Yudhoyono administration. The main story line was that Gamawan Fauzi’s pro-democracy attitude and successful good governance programs had gotten him re-elected as district head, then governor and finally catapulted him into Yudhoyono’s cabinet. He was, in other words, a messianic figure whose exemplary behaviour showed ‘old elites’ that support for democracy was being rewarded.
Only a few people dared to say that Fauzi’s shallow reform programs in Solok collapsed soon after he had moved on to greener pastures. Fauzi could not fire many of the corrupt bureaucrats in the local administration since they were protected by Indonesia’s decrepit civil service law. Hence, such bureaucrats simply waited for Fauzi’s departure to regain control. Most development consultants were also unaware of the fact that governor Fauzi had re-introduced an older form of local administration that goes back to pre-colonial times called the Nagari system, which excludes women from political decision-making processes by restricting participation to male clan chiefs. Finally, the fact that Gamawan Fauzi was also one of the most prolific local executives in Indonesia with regard to the adoption and implementation of discriminatory syariah local regulations received no mention at all in development industry circles.
Good-looking, as comfortable donning a Western business suit as wearing a traditional khaki civil service uniform, fluent in English and well-versed in development-lingo thanks to some exposure to development industry seminars early on in his career (his résumé notes participation in such grandly-titled events as ‘The Role of Local Government in Implementing APEC Declaration’(1995); ‘Reinventing Government’ (1995); ‘Civil-Affair and Civil Military Operation’ (1999); ‘Implementing Integrity Pacts’ (2003)), Gamawan Fauzi became the darling of the development industry soon after the fall of Suharto in 1998.
Rarely a major donor workshop on decentralisation went by in Jakarta without Gamawan Fauzi speaking in his capacity as a ‘reformer’, or a ‘democracy-minded politician’. Finally a local executive head who said exactly the kind of things the donor community was craving to hear from Indonesian politicians. Fauzi’s recent U-turn suggests he was but a well-trained parrot, or simply a shrewd politician who knew what kind of rhetoric would raise his profile in democratising Indonesia and eventually pave the way for a career in national politics.
Predators to the rescue
In the face of Fauzi’s proposal to wind back local democracy, support for the country’s local democratic institutions has come from unexpected quarters. In April 2012, Syahrul Yasin Limpo the head of the Provincial Government Association (APPSI) and South Sulawesi Governor publicly lambasted Fauzi’s proposal as undemocratic and accused the Interior Minister of trying to ‘take away rights from the people’. Limpo, of course, is no stranger to observers of Indonesian local politics since he too has frequently been in the news over past years, although for altogether different reasons than Gamawan Fauzi.
District head of Gowa between 1993 and 2003, Syahrul Yasin Limpo made national headlines when he was busted in a 2002 drug raid together with a prostitute. Others may have seen such an incident as a setback to their political career, but Syahrul not only managed to become the head of the provincial Anti-Drug Commission and a prolific anti-drug columnist in a local newspaper soon afterwards but also ran as deputy governor in 2003. In his successful campaign for governor a few years later, his official campaign slogan conveyed a simple and apt message to the electorate: ‘Don’t look back!’ In 2012, he launched his re-election campaign for a second term as governor. Driving around one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces in various high-end luxury cars with a number plate that consists only of his initials SYL while commanding several private security forces and hundreds of thugs, Syahrul Yasin Limpo lords over South Sulawesi precisely like one of the ‘little kings’ mentioned in donor agency reports.
Flanking Syahrul Yasin Limpo during the press conference in April 2012 in support of local democracy were several other notorious governors such as Awang Faroek Ishak from East Kalimantan province, who was named a suspect in a corruption case surrounding the divestment of PT Kaltim Prima Coal (KPC) shares in 2010, Teras Narang from Central Kalimantan, who had come up on the radar screen of the Financial Transactions Reporting and Analysis Centre (PPATK) for suspicious payments into his bank account in 2009, and last but not least, Ratu Atut Chosiyah from Banten, scion of one of Indonesia’s most corrupt families that has run the local construction industry in a criminal fashion for decades with the help of tens of thousands of thugs organised in martial art associations. In short, the politicians that stood up for democracy were hardly the kind of types one would see attending donor meetings and democracy workshops at swanky Jakarta hotels.
Heaven versus hell?
The emphatic criticism of Fauzi’s plan, which is now awaiting approval in the parliament, by these governors who are surrounded by a taint of illegality and figure in the public mind for their run-ins with the law rather than their democratic credentials, is interesting for various reasons.
For starters, it offers a rare glimpse into centre-periphery tensions in Indonesia, a topic that is grossly understudied by academics and practitioners alike. Various efforts of national level politicians to re-centralise power both within state institutions and the party system in past years have gone unopposed. Arguably, the absence of any resistance is due to the fact that the institutional powers transferred back to the centre were not very substantive. Likewise, the re-centralisation within the party system did not matter to sub-national politicians because their careers do not depend on the dysfunctional parties anyway but on their personal networks and connections.
So why then does Fauzi’s proposal aggravate local executive heads? Above all, their reaction shows that democratic institutions have become a viable power base for politicians who a few years back seemed least likely to have any interest in them. Many of these governors are rich enough to bribe national politicians and officials to protect themselves from becoming corruption suspects but lack the financial and political connections to influence national party headquarters. Gamawan Fauzi’s plan would empower the national party headquarters, all of which have adopted regulations in recent years that concentrate power at the national level when putting forward candidates for local executive head elections.
Most of these governors are also local figures who have established networks in their respective constituencies, sometimes over decades. Fauzi’s proposal would render such ‘social capital’ – consisting of connections with groups from vote-canvassers, local notables, leaders of prayer groups through to criminal networks – worthless and therefore constitute a threat to local politicians’ prospects of winning political power.
There is no doubt that Limpo and his colleagues had first and foremost themselves in mind and not the people when they publicly attacked Fauzi’s plan in April. After all, governors’ offices provide legal and illegal access to resources, the possibility of implementing predatory taxes and levies or simply the chance to embezzle state funds. Given the riches that come with an executive post, it is not surprising that many of the aforementioned figures are running for a second term, including Syahrul Yasin Limpo whose entire political program once again consists of a single sentence: ‘Don’t stop, Komandan!’
The contradiction between these figures’ pious rhetoric and their worldly motives for defending democracy is not a reason to abolish direct elections for local executive heads, however. As the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant showed in his treatise Zum Ewigen Frieden (Perpetual Peace) there were always people who believed that ‘a republic would have to be a nation of angels, because men with their selfish inclinations are not capable of a constitution of such sublime form.’ Kant refuted this position: ‘The problem of organising a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.’ The key thing is for those devils to ‘establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.’ In other words, the right institutions can constrain the personal agendas of even the very worst politicians, and force them in new directions.
Direct elections for local executive heads in Indonesia are an approximation to the system Kant described. In the old days of President Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime, recruitment, promotion and retirement mechanisms for public officials were upward oriented and ultimately regulated by Suharto.
The introduction of direct executive elections in the context of decentralisation created a more competitive environment for political elites. My research shows, for instance, that there are more than two ‘effective candidates’ in almost all local executive head elections conducted in Indonesia since 2005. In other words, in most races, there are at least two candidates with a good chance of winning and relatively equal strength with regard to the number of votes they obtain. The domination of provincial, district and municipality executive head elections by an all-powerful single figure is rare in contemporary Indonesia.
At the same time, it seems that although extensive family-based political networks exist, local Indonesian politicians struggle to establish enduring dynasties. Although one may say that it is too early to come to such a conclusion since dynasties have not yet had the opportunity to accumulate power through a series of elections in the same locality, we can equally say it is too early to come to Gamawan Fauzi’s conclusion that Indonesia needs to abolish such elections in order to prevent local dynasties.
The competitive nature of local electoral politics has disrupted ties within the political elite. As competition re-ordered the relatively stable political structure of the New Order years, political elites have faced new challenges to stay in power. To find allies and support for their battles with one another, political elites who could afford to ignore citizens during the New Order period have now started to ‘reach-down’ in the political arena. Consequently, new alliances have emerged between political elites and ordinary citizens in the context of direct executive elections.
The creation of such alliances may have allowed elites to defend their political position overall, but concessions made during these struggles with one another have come to limit them in new and significant ways. Most importantly, local politicians have become dependent on ordinary citizens to a degree unthinkable during the New Order and therefore have to go to great lengths to obtain support from the electorate. For instance, every candidate serious about running for local executive head office has to spend an extended period of time on the campaign trail, travelling through villages and small towns for months on end. In addition, politicians have to buy votes and deliver favours to the electorate prior to elections, which has allowed communities to press for at least some sort of service delivery, however crude.
It’s relationships that count
In short, it is the relationships within elites, not the personal character traits or the behaviours of individual politicians, that shape power dynamics in contemporary Indonesian local politics. By competing against each other, ‘predatory forces’, ‘little kings’ and ‘entrenched elites’ have pushed state-society relations in more democratic directions – in spite of themselves.
Direct elections for local executive figures assure such competition. Hence, Gamawan Fauzi‘s proposal to end direct elections for governors would deal one of the most severe blows of recent years to Indonesia’s democratisation efforts. Against this backdrop, foreign democracy crusaders may want to read, if not Kant’s treatise, then at least Dan Brown’s less highbrow novel Angels and Demons that introduced a broader public to the world of ambigrams that play an important role in Christian mysticism. Ambigrams are words that, when read from another viewpoint or perspective, reveal a word that is different from the original. Such an alternative viewpoint on who are the forces in favour of and against local democratisation in Indonesia may be useful when putting together the guest lists for future development industry workshops.
Michael Buehler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Northern Illinois University.