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Review: Money, power and ideology in Indonesia’s political party system

Review: Money, power and ideology in Indonesia’s political party system
Published: May 18, 2014

Marcus Mietzner argues that when seen in the context of other new democracies, Indonesia’s political parties are not so bad

Dirk Tomsa

In April, Indonesians went to the polls to elect a new parliament. Perhaps more than ever before, this election was dominated by personalities rather than parties – both in the form of potential presidential candidates and individual legislative candidates campaigning on the ground. But once the vote counting was under way, the attention of the public and media shifted again to the parties who quickly began their negotiating for coalitions ahead of the presidential nominations. For many observers, the very nature of these early meetings appeared to reinforce long-established depictions of Indonesia’s parties as ideologically shallow, power-hungry and self-interested. To put it in terms frequently used by scholars of Indonesian politics, the parties appeared weakly institutionalised and determined to continue their practice of promiscuously sharing power, thereby perpetuating a cartelised party system. 

These widely accepted characterisations of Indonesian parties, which have their conceptual roots in the so-called ‘institutionalisation’ and ‘cartelisation’ schools of thought, are challenged in Marcus Mietzner’s new book Money, Power, and Ideology: Political Parties in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia. While Mietzner acknowledges that Indonesia’s parties and party system do suffer from a number of serious weaknesses – he singles out the absence of an effective party finance system as the most serious flaw – the book argues that by comparative standards Indonesia’s parties are actually neither poorly institutionalised nor heavily cartelised.

He develops his argument in seven analytical chapters that build on theoretical parameters from both the institutionalisation and the cartelisation schools, as well as an alternative framework that emphasises the importance of ideological and functional factors. The result is an empirically rich and analytically sophisticated book, the conclusions of which emphasise the need to contextualise the evolution of Indonesia’s parties and party system not only in the country’s own historical development but also in global democratisation trends. Seen against other new democracies from different parts of the world, Mietzner argues, Indonesia’s parties are not as bad as their reputation would suggest.

The book provides an overview of Indonesian party politics that is unprecedented not only in its breadth – it covers all nine parties that held seats in parliament between 2009 and 2014 – but also in its depth as it analyses these nine parties on the basis of a multitude of relevant indicators. The bulk of the discussion utilises criteria from the well-known cartelisation theory in order to tackle head-on popular claims that Indonesia is in the grip of a party cartel. Mietzner’s main contention here is that these claims are misleading. This is partly, he argues, for conceptual reasons as proponents of the cartelisation thesis are focusing only on the party system while neglecting the individual parties. But it is also partly for empirical reasons as competition between parties is actually fiercer than it is made out to be by cartelisation scholars.

Overall, the critique is incisive and insightful, though I am sure cartelisation scholars will not be convinced by some of the finer points. For example, Mietzner’s argument that ‘polls have empowered voters to send parties and their leaders into opposition’, which rests on the refusal of PDIP, Gerindra and Hanura to join SBY’s government coalition, could easily be countered by pointing to the political behaviour of most other parties who happily joined the coalition even though voters had tried very hard to send them into opposition.

The bottom line then, somewhat unsurprisingly, is that things are not black and white in Indonesian party politics. Though there are tendencies to cartelisation, there is also much evidence to the contrary. Mietzner’s objective in this book is clearly to highlight the latter and, by and large, he succeeds in this endeavour.

Nonetheless, despite the high quality of the analysis and the depth of the material presented, I found three issues in particular either unconvincing or missing from the analysis. Firstly, in his engagement with the dominant theoretical approaches in the study of Indonesian party politics, Mietzner resorts to some sweeping generalisations and oversimplifications, especially in his discussion of the institutionalisation approach. As someone who has used this approach in the past, and whose work was critically reviewed in the book, I feel that Mietzner treats this school in a somewhat reductionist manner. For example, despite acknowledging early on the importance of distinguishing between party institutionalisation and party system institutionalisation, he often uses the terms interchangeably in the remainder of the book. There is a tendency here to equate institutionalisation theories with quantitative analysis and he dismisses the approach as ‘unsuitable for an in-depth characterisation of Indonesia’s parties’. In doing so, Mietzner glosses over the immense conceptual diversity within this theoretical approach. While it is true that party system institutionalisation is often measured through quantitative instruments, it is also the case that party institutionalisation lends itself quite well to qualitative or mixed-method analysis.

I also found the book to be Jakarta-centric. This is evident not only in its analytical focus, but also in the selection of interviewees whose contributions are referenced throughout the text. The overwhelming majority of them are national-level politicians based in Jakarta. While local branches are discussed occasionally, they are not treated as objects of analysis as such. Their role is seen primarily in relation to the centre of politics, Jakarta, despite the fact that decentralisation has immensely heightened the importance of local politics. Missing from the book is an examination of how and to what extent developments at the national level are mirrored at the provincial and district level. Several of the positive developments highlighted by Mietzner, such as the increased stability of the party system, the growing professionalisation of internal party infrastructures, the more widespread use of social media or the so-called ‘postponed end of ideology’, would appear in a different light if analysed at the local level.

Following on from this, a third issue that I would have liked to have seen featured more prominently, is the prevalence of clientelism as a crucial means of both internal party organisation and electoral competition. Clientelism is particularly pronounced at the local level, but it also pervades recruitment patterns and other organisational dynamics in national leadership boards and legislative caucuses. Virtually all Indonesian parties are, to varying degrees, affected by clientelistic practices. It would have been very instructive if the book had illuminated more systematically some of these practices and the implications of their ongoing prevalence for party-society relations, internal party democracy and inter-party competition.

These minor issues notwithstanding, Mietzner’s book makes a tremendous contribution to our understanding of contemporary Indonesian politics. By challenging conventional wisdoms, it invites the reader to think outside the box and not simply accept the seemingly established truth that parties are the weakest link in Indonesia’s democracy. What I found particularly noteworthy is that the book succeeds remarkably well in bridging the gap between the disciplines of Indonesian studies and comparative politics.

On the one hand, Mietzner applies methodological approaches well-established in Indonesian studies, for example by making extensive use of interview material from his countless conversations with Jakarta powerbrokers. The numerous quotes from these interviews not only provide important insights into the worldviews of Indonesia’s party elite, but they also serve to elicit the occasional chuckle from the reader, for example when Mietzner recounts how he entered the 2010 Democratic Party congress with a badge that identified him as a branch chairman from Southeast Sulawesi.

At the same time, Mietzner also demonstrates an excellent grasp of the broader comparative literature on party development, making frequent references to both theoretical and empirical texts on global trends in party politics.

All in all, this is a magnificent work, which I wholeheartedly recommend to all readers of Inside Indonesia and everyone interested in party politics in Indonesia and beyond.


Mietzner, Marcus (2013), Money, Power, and Ideology: Political Parties in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia, Singapore: NUS Press.

Dirk Tomsa (d.tomsa@latrobe.edu.au) is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Legal Studies at La Trobe University.

Inside Indonesia 116: Apr-Jun 2014{jcomments on}

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