Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

The village head as patron

Published: May 09, 2017
The Village Law might restore the dominance that village heads enjoyed under Suharto

Is Indonesia’s democratisation process changing the functioning of village heads? During the New Order, village heads often operated like small rural despots, safeguarded by the backing of an authoritarian regime. In this period the New Order relied on local state representatives like village heads and RT/RW (neighbourhood) heads to maintain support. They were often highly effective in this task. This was at least partly due to their capacity to reward villagers for their loyalty. Villagers generally accessed most state benefits – from health care to education to welfare support and even jobs – through (recommendations from) village heads. This capacity to withhold access to important resources, in combination with the status associated with their position, made it difficult for villagers to hold village heads to account. Those villagers courageous enough to protest against the malpractices of village heads risked getting sidelined and excluded from various kinds of beneficial government programs. 

In 2014, we conducted fieldwork on village politics in West Java (Sambodho) and Lampung and Kalimantan (Berenschot) to see whether and how democratisation is changing this dominance of village heads. We concluded that, despite hangovers from the New Order, village heads now face stronger pressure to perform due to a wider distribution of power. At the same time, there are indications that despite a range of participatory and accountability mechanism put in place by the new Village Law, there is an inherent risk that it will undo some of this progress, and reinforce the dominance of the village head.

Not scared anymore

We found that, compared to the New Order period, village heads now need to be much more responsive to the needs and requests from villagers. The village elites we studied not only talked regularly about ‘melayani’ (serving) the villagers, they were actually fairly active in helping villagers gain access to state programs, supporting poor families or arranging government projects. A subtle shift in self-perception has taken place: village heads now see themselves less as representatives of the state and more as representatives of the village community. 

Such observations differed from accounts from the New Order period, when villager heads generally operated as the most local extension of an authoritarian regime. The increased responsiveness of village heads has three main causes. First, village heads can no longer rely on backing from the state apparatus. During the New Order, bureaucrats as well as the security apparatus often suppressed criticism of the village heads. This fear is gone. As one villager said, ‘everybody can say what they want today. Everybody is brave now, (they) are not scared of anybody anymore’. Second, village head accountability has somewhat improved. Not only are village heads elected, but their functioning is also monitored by village consultative councils (BPD). 

Third, Indonesia’s democratisation process has multiplied the channels through which people gain access to state resources, thus reducing the capacity of village heads to punish villagers for a lack of support. Village heads are no longer the main conduit to access government benefits, such as cash handouts or subsidised health care, because the selection of beneficiaries of such programs is now (partly) out of their hands. Village heads are no longer the only villagers with important political connections. During elections, villagers sign up to the tim sukses (campaign teams) of politicians. When their candidate is victorious, they can gain privileged access to bureaucrats. During our fieldwork we observed how villagers now rely on a much wider set of actors – from tim sukses members to health care workers to facilitators of the village development program called PNPM – to get things done.

Village democratisation

The result is that, over the last decade, the influence and authority of village heads have waned somewhat. To be sure, village heads are still influential actors. We both observed how during election time, candidates tend to cozy up to village heads. Candidates regularly promise them money as well as government projects in exchange for their support. Politicians need to court them because village heads still have the capacity to influence the voting behaviour of villagers. This legacy of the New Order is still alive: village heads can still use (promises of) access to government benefits to build local status and influence. This kind of patronage helps village heads to ensure their own re-election. The capacity to dispense patronage also shores up their influence over voters during elections for district heads and governors. 

Yet this influence over the voting behaviour of villagers isn’t what it once was. The control over access to important resources is no longer so concentrated in the hands of the village head. Nor is their status and authority as secure as it was during the New Order. A kind of informal democratisation process has taken place in rural Indonesia. This is disciplining village heads, requiring them to be more responsive to requests from villagers. As a result, their capacity to cajole and to pressure people is more limited than under the New Order. 

Will the Village Law reverse this trend?

The new Village Law, with the prominent role it accords to village heads, might reverse that trend and restore some of their former dominance. The law will put an enormous sum of money – Rp.1 billion or about US$75,000 on a yearly basis – into the hands of the village head. While officially there are various consultative procedures on how to spend this money, in practice village heads will wield most influence over how this money will be spent. The Village Law does also further strengthen the BPD as an important oversight mechanism. The BPD system was first reformed in 1999 as a means to give villagers more control over village heads. But so far, the BPD experience has been disappointing. Some of its power was rolled back in the 2004 decentralisation law. Furthermore, in many cases the BPD and the village head operate in a highly collusive fashion.

The big gamble of the new Village Law is that BPDs can improve. The law stipulates that council members be elected, after previously being appointed. It remains to be seen whether this provision can stop the collusive relationship between village heads and the BPD. There are considerable doubts about the effectiveness of these provisions (see Ben White’s contribution). The costs of election campaigns and the lure of the big budgets in the hands of the village heads both incentivise village councils to maintain good relations with village heads. As the village council’s authority and functions are limited, it will take some time, and intensive intervention efforts, for members of the newly elected BPD to gain the skills and confidence to operate effectively.

Intensified village politics

If the BPD cannot operate as an effective counterforce, the Village Law will end up restoring the dominance of village heads. We envision three main changes. First, village head elections will become increasingly competitive. As there is a big prize to be won, an increasing number of candidates will be willing to spend large sums of money on buying votes. Second, village heads will once again have the capacity to use government funds to reward supporters and punish adversaries. The actual spending of these new budgets might be marked by intense village-level politicking. Village heads may, for example, opt to build new roads in parts of the village where they have support while ignoring parts where their opponents reside. We might see a lot of unevenly developed villages. 

A third important change is a reconfiguration of the relationships between village heads and district governments. Villages will be less dependent on the district government to secure government funding. At present the village heads we studied spend much time in district capitals, trying to convince the local government to allocate budgets to their village. This dependency on the district government is an important reason why village heads back candidates during elections. The Village Law might change this because it allocates budgets directly to villages. This curtails the dependency of village heads on politicians and outside bureaucrats. It will be interesting to observe how this important change will affect the relationship between local state officials, politicians and village heads. They will be looking for new ways to cultivate the support and loyalty of village heads.

All this suggests that the new budgets provided by the Village Law will end up strengthening the position of village heads. As a result, the village heads might regain some of prominence they enjoyed during the New Order. The village head as patron might be back.

Ward Berenschot (Berenschot@kitlv.nl) is a researcher at KITLV Leiden, working on politics, citizenship and democratization in India and Indonesia. See www.informalpolitics.org. Prio Sambodho (priosambodho@gmail.com) is a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam, writing a dissertation on democratisation in rural Indonesia.

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

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