Pathways to a People’s President

BY JEFFREY A. WINTERS
Mar 05, 2012

If Indonesians are going to find a candidate to oppose the oligarchs, they need to start organising now.

1212 The prospects for 2014 don’t always inspire positive responses PHOTO: Henri Ismail/Poros PhotoAll modern democracies contain a strong element of oligarchy. But Indonesia represents a particularly extreme example of oligarchic dominance and distortion. This is partly because wealth, the defining power resource of oligarchs, is unusually concentrated in Indonesian society.

Some simple comparisons are illuminating. Focusing just on the net worth of the top 500 individuals or families in each case, the Senators of Rome were about 10,000 times richer than the average farmer or slave living in the Roman Empire. In the United States today, wealth is twice as concentrated – the top 500 Americans are about 20,000 times as wealthy as the average citizen. Singapore’s ratio is slightly higher than that of the U.S., at about 25,000 to 1. But in Indonesia, the top 500 oligarchs are about 600,000 times richer than the average Indonesian.

Money is one of the most versatile forms of power. Because society is so poorly organised and mobilised, its impact on Indonesian democracy has been overwhelming at all political levels since Suharto’s fall in 1998.

Media and party power

A small number of oligarchs now own the vast majority of Indonesia’s print, television, radio, and online media. Following a short burst of new media voices after 1998, big money moved aggressively to consolidate most sources of information and communication into fewer than a dozen hands. This process accelerated once big political players realised the media could make or break a candidate. Indonesia’s media outlets are free. But they are also thoroughly corporate and dominated by super-powerful oligarchs.

As with all the parties in Indonesia, the ideological spectrum for the media ranges from conservative to extreme right-wing. Most conflicts and debates among the media arise because of clashes between the oligarchic personalities or political groups that own them. The only other major variation across publications or broadcasts is whether they are stuffy and up-market (like Kompas and MetroTV) or churn out sensationalist, burlesque, or even superstitious fare for the wider market (of which there are too many examples to mention).

The next national elections are scheduled for 2014. Serious presidential contenders have no choice but to buy media access, which in some cases has meant buying television, radio stations, and newspapers outright.

But candidates must also buy parties. This happens in several ways. Some legislative candidates pay large sums to be featured prominently on party lists on election day (although candidates are increasingly on their own as they run more individual campaigns). At a higher level, those seeking to be party leaders must pay huge sums to delegates at national party congresses to outflank opponents for posts like party chairperson or secretary general.

And in some cases, oligarchs use their money-power (or that of their supporters if they are not yet big fish) to create new parties out of nothing. The idea is to make yourself party chair so that you can be catapulted to the presidency. The strategy worked for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The last phase of buying a party unfolds during the frenzied process of trying to cobble together enough representation in the DPR (People’s Representative Council), Indonesia’s parliament, to meet the threshold to be a presidential contender. In 2009 candidates for the presidency required the support of parties that held at least 20 per cent of DPR seats, or which had won 25 per cent of the vote.

There is plenty of political horse-trading regarding vice-presidential running mates and promises of cabinet posts. But such deals are never enough to make a successful alliance or coalition in Indonesia. A presidential hopeful must also be ready to pay millions of dollars in cash to his or her party allies. A portion of the pay-off flows to the other parties’ coffers, and some goes directly into the pockets of party leaders as a political closing fee for being the direct negotiators of the deals.

Extortion rules

If you want to win at this game – and you are not already an oligarch who commands a large personal fortune – you must get the financial backing of big Indonesian oligarchs who can supply the political cash. Sometimes this is done through persuasion. But usually it involves a strong element of extortion. Candidates and their backers threaten – implicitly or explicitly – to harass or punish oligarchs who refuse to provide financial support. Past or dormant legal cases can always be revived, and key business permits can suddenly be revoked or mysteriously require review. One of the most important political calculations an oligarch can make is deciding which candidates to support and how much cash to supply.

There is no shortage of illegality behind the major fortunes in Indonesia. This leaves oligarchs permanently vulnerable to being squeezed. Even if these oligarchs wanted to play strictly by the rules (and several of them probably do), this presumes that there are clear legal codes and procedures to follow in the first place.

Such is not the case in Indonesia. This is partly because of outdated and contradictory laws dating back to Dutch colonial times, and partly a reflection of greater regional autonomy after 1998, which has resulted in conflicting laws across multiple jurisdictions (nowhere is this more prevalent than in the regulations and mappings covering land status, boundaries, ownership, and use).

But an equally important reason why there is so much legal disarray is that legal uncertainty plays a vital role in the constant game of extortion that redistributes wealth among Indonesia’s oligarchs and elites. The biggest game in town is not energetic wealth creation via industry and services, but aggressive wealth redistribution among the powerful after it has been extracted from the country’s declining natural resource endowments.

Oligarchs and politicians (who are often one and the same if they are not part of the country’s Chinese minority) must master this game of money, elections, office, law, and extortion if they are to win (or just survive) in the country’s challenging political economy.

This is not a transient aspect of Indonesian politics that is likely to fade as the ‘quality of democracy’ improves in the electoral cycles that lie ahead. Rather, it is a defining characteristic of how oligarchy and democracy are blended in Indonesia. And however much those playing the game at the top may complain about the distortions all of this causes for the nation’s politics, or how disgusted they feel personally to be taking part, these relationships between money and politics in the system are deep and self-regenerating.