May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Creating Indonesia’s Village Law

Published: May 09, 2017
How a law that goes against many vested interests was enacted

In 2014 Indonesia’s president signed a new Village Law. It granted all 74,000 villages in the country much greater autonomy and the right to receive a village fund that, in practice, will be around Rp. 1 billion (approximately US$75,000) per year. Previously, higher levels of government decided about public projects in villages. For example, building new roads and bridges or providing inputs for agriculture used to be part of district government policies. In that sense it was surprising that a law that flies in the face of so many vested interests was actually adopted. We argue that the adoption of the village law was due to three factors: support of many sorts of activists, a favourable political momentum and legal procedures being facilitated.

Activists pushing for change in rural areas

After one decade of democratisation, many activists were not satisfied with the benefits this process had brought for people living in the rural areas. Four groups of activists were significant in campaigning for rural reform and each had their own specific campaigning goal.

The organisations formed by village heads and other village government officials, Persatuan Rakyat Desa Nusantara (Association of Villages of the Archipelago), campaigned for more village autonomy and for increasing the power and improving the material position of the village head. More specifically, they demanded that village government officials be permitted to become members of a political party, that an extension of the office term for village head be possible, and that village heads receive the status of civil servants.

A second group of activists wanted more room for diversity in the composition of village administrations and the way villages are governed. They argued that the Suharto regime had a devastating effect on local culture and community life since it unified the village governance structures in 1979 through the previous Village Law. Minangkabau intellectuals were prominent among these activists, stressing how their traditional nagari (Minangkabau administrative unit) had been at odds with village administration throughout history.

Land reform activists, for example those in the Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform) were a third group supporting a new village law. From their perspective, greater village autonomy (and land rights) would give village citizens more power in land disputes. Their most prominent representative in the village law campaign was Budiman Sudjatmiko, who had already been fighting for land reform during the New Order period. Sudjatmiko also demanded a larger money transfer to the village budgets, and coined the slogan that ten per cent of the national budget should go to the villages.

Indigenous activists supported the Village Law because it would help achieve recognition of indigenous communities and their land rights. The Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (National Association of Indigenous Communities) regarded the new Law’s option to establish indigenous villages as a positive step towards recognition.

Support for continuing democratisation

Meanwhile democratisation activists saw the Village Law as a means to facilitate better democratic control of government institutions and their budgets. For example, the Institute for Research and Empowerment (IRE) concentrated on improving village institutions like the village parliament. In turn, international funding agencies supported the IRE and other democratisation civil society organisations (CSOs) and, therefore, indirectly supported the making of the new Law.

International donor institutions have been actively promoting decentralisation since 2001. The World Bank is the first among them. Inspired by the theory that stronger social capital will foster development, the World Bank started applying community-driven development and social fund approaches. Following an earlier program, the National Program for Community Empowerment (PNPM) started in 2007. PNPM focused on reducing poverty in all Indonesian provinces through a community planning process to generate employment and investing in small-scale infrastructure projects to improve the development of individual villages and urban wards. For this policy community the new village law had the potential to consolidate the PNPM approach.

Coalition for law-making

Normally, experts from ministries prepare drafts for new legislation, and only after the bill is drafted will the parliament discuss its content and pass the bill, or not. Since 2004 there has been an alternative procedure in Indonesia involving a participatory law-making process that can be used by CSOs to promote their long term policy agendas. There are three steps to this process:

1. Based on Law No. 12/2011 about law making, the first step for activist CSOs is to get an item on the legislative agenda of the National Parliament. That agenda, called the Prolegnas, is determined at the start of a newly elected parliament’s five-year term. Inclusion in the Prolegnas is by no means a guarantee that a law will be realised – in recent years only about a third of the proposals on the agenda have been successful.

2. The second step is creating an ‘academic draft’, an academic study about which issues should be regulated by the new law. CSO’s legal experts can become involved and set the agenda for the internal debates among the parliament’s legislators.

3. The third step for CSOs in influencing the law-making process is having their own expert included in the specialist team that the parliament hires to write the draft of the bill. These experts try to include provisions in the new law that address all issues that they want to be changed.

So, because these alternative law-making procedures exist, the activists who were disappointed with the effect of democratisation so far, could use law making as a strategy for change.

Favourable political momentum

In 2006, members of Parade Nusantara organised a discussion meeting in Semarang with several representatives from the national parliament. Items on their agenda concerned improvements for the village government officials. The activists and politicians present at the meeting agreed that ‘as the pillar of the Indonesian nation, the village should be regulated decently and professionally’, which and this became the first call for making a new Village Law. Parade Nusantara’s lobbying helped push the government to take action in making three new laws: one on regional government, one on regional elections and a third on villages. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs took the initiative for conducting an academic review about what the content of the new law should be, and invited CSOs and development donor institutions to cooperate. This was the perfect opportunity for some activist academics to get their items on the agenda. After several public consultations the review, was finalised in July 2007. However, the government took no steps to follow up on this and did not immediately start the law-making process as the authors of the review had hoped.

Frustrated by this inactivity, other activists then decided to follow the alternative route of getting parliament to use its right of initiative in law making, as explained above. In 2009, Budiman Sudjatmiko succeeded in being elected as a member of parliament and thus he was in a position to propose new legislation. He succeeded in getting the Village Law onto the 2010 Prolegnas. He pushed the Ministry of Home Affairs to eventually publish its draft village law so that it could be discussed in parliament. That draft turned out to have lost virtually all elements proposed in the academic review. 

Meanwhile Parade Nusantara supported these activities through more demonstrations in Jakarta. In December 2012 the demonstrations nearly developed into full riots. The parliamentary process continued by composing a special committee for drafting the new Village Law, with Sudjatmiko as one of its deputy chairmen. Democratisation activists Sutoro Eko and R Yando Zakaria became members of the team of experts who actually drafted the law. 

Budiman Sudjatmitko briefs journalists after the national Parliament has passed the new Village Law (©Yando Zakaria, Jakarta 18 December 2013)

In 2013 the political climate became favourable for parliamentary support for the proposed village law. New general elections were in sight, which made politicians inclined to support initiatives that would be popular among a huge part of the electorate. The parliament passed the bill in December 2013 and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed the enactment in January 2014. 

The result

Democratisation NGOs organised seminars to explain about the new law immediately after its enactment (© Jacqueline Vel, Tambolaka, February 2014)

The final version of the law introduced five major changes. First, the distinction between desa (village) and desa adat (indigenous village) accommodates the variety in types of villages. Second, the village is no longer regarded as being under the district or sub-district, but instead is an autonomous legal entity by itself. Third, the Village Law combines assets and operating budgets meant for village level programs into one national budget. This change is meant to reduce overhead costs made by the higher government, including opportunities for mark-ups and corruption. Fourth, the law introduces new planning and budgeting procedures – all projects must be included in the village five-year plans and yearly village budgets. Another innovation is the musyawarah desa (village consultative meeting) being the highest body of village governance. This innovation is meant to curtail the power of the village head and to provide a solution for cases where, under the previous situation, tension between the village parliament and the village head would lead to a stalemate.

The activists who had been involved felt victorious in January 2014. Their collaboration for making a new law that would serve all their goals simultaneously had worked well. At that moment they did not foresee all the problems that would be involved in implementing the law in practice. A consequence of there being a number of stakeholders participating in making this law was that the content of the law was relatively general and ambiguous. It did not provide for a clear mechanism of implementation and contentious points were left for implementing regulations to resolve. However, the fact that this participatory law-making process had been successfully completed was a great activist achievement.

R. Yando Zakaria ( is an anthropologist living in Yogyakarta and, in 2013, was a member of the national parliament’s expert team for drafting the village law. Jacqueline Vel ( is a researcher at Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) and the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society (VVI) of Leiden University. Adriaan Bedner ( is Professor of Law and Society in Indonesia at Leiden University.

Inside Indonesia 128: Apr-Jun 2017{jcomments on}

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