Informal Politics and Indonesia’s new Village Law

 In 2014 Indonesia’s parliament adopted a new village law that, when fully implemented, would bring big chances to rural life. The law aims at an empowerment of villages. Or should I say: an empowerment of village elites.

The new law stipulates that each village should get 1.4 billion rupiah (about 100.000 euro), to be spend on various ‘development needs’. That is in itself revolutionary. As villagers now have to lick heels at various (district-) government departments to get funds, this new law would make villagers much more independent from this outside bosses. The idea of this law is that it would give villagers more agency, cut bureaucratic tape and, in this way, boost rural economic development.

But what happens if you put so much money and power into the hands of (elected) village heads? To address this question, we organised a well-attended workshop 19-20 mei last month. A mix of policy makers, academics and ngo-practitioners gathered in Leiden to discuss the impact that this village-level decentralization would have for rural life and rural development. Here are some of the conclusions that I drew from the discussions.

On the whole, the contributions from panellists did not leave me very optimistic. In particular, I was struck by the lack of attention of the drafters and implementers of the village law for the clientelistic nature of village leadership in Indonesia. Yes, the policy makers in the room were aware that village heads often pay big sums of money to secure their election. And yes, they knew that this money is often recovered by taking a ‘cut’ from all project-funds that pass through the villages. But somehow the expectation (hope?) is that various oversight mechanisms would force village elites to risk the temptation.

The problem here is that these oversight mechanisms largely depend on villagers who not infrequently stand in a very dependent, patron-client-like relationship with the village elites they are supposed to monitor. During the New Order, village-state interaction often assumed a clientelistic form. Villages supportive of Golkar during elections often received privileged access to state budgets for building, for example, village roads or schools. Village heads themselves were known to be less responsive to wishes and demands from individuals known to be critical of the New Order regime.

This pattern changed somewhat after the fall of Suharto and the advent of direct elections for district heads and governors. Indonesia’s democratization process has empowered villages in their dealings with state institutions largely because village leaders obtained a much wider range of contacts and channels linked to these newly elected politicians. This has increased the capacity of villages to put pressurize on the state to deliver.

Yet what has not really changed is that village heads face strong incentives to use all resources under their control to cement their dominance. As most of them (or their family members) face re-election, village heads are often tempted to use, say, welfare programs, infrastructure projects or subsidized healthcare as a means to reward the loyal supporters among the villagers.

During Suharto’s rule, local state representatives like village heads and the RT/RW heads played an important role in maintaining support for the New Order. Their capacity to withhold access to important resources, in combination with the status associated with their position, meant that village heads (and, to a lesser extent, RT/RW heads) were generally considered capable of delivering a sizable portion of the votes at the time the New Order’s controlled elections. Under Suharto it was quite common for village heads to manipulate the implementation of government programs to maintain support for themselves and to quell resistance against the New Order. Villagers needed, for example, to obtain letters of ‘good behaviour’ (surat kelakuan baik) signed by the village heads (as well as police and army officials) in order to get married, get a government job or be admitted in school. Local state representatives were prone to present any provision of such benefits as entailing an obligation to reciprocate these favours – either by supporting Golkar or themselves. As a result, village heads were very powerful figures in their villagers and there was, at that time, no avenue for villagers to hold their village head to account. That has changed somewhat, as there are now, for example, village councils.

Two aspects of functioning of village heads during the New Order are particularly important for understanding the nature of clientelistic exchanges in contemporary Indonesia. Firstly, Indonesia embarked on its democratization process with a village apparatus that enjoyed high levels of discretionary power over the distribution of state resources. Political parties, in contrast, were not even allowed to operate at the local level had a much more limited capacity to control this distribution of resources. Political parties in Indonesia are relatively absent in villages in between elections because they have a much more limited capacity to help supporters deal with state institutions and obtain welfare provisions or public services.

Secondly, an important heritage of Indonesia’s recent authoritarian past is the practice of village heads to use state resources to shore up political support. The provision of public services and other state benefits are still being used as a means to influence voting behaviour. As a result of these two historical legacies, village heads are still important people in a village and opposition could come with various risks – such as curtailed access to health care, education or subsidies.

What would that all mean for the impact of the village law over the next, say, twenty years? I would predict, firstly, a massive increase in spending on vote buying during village head elections. With so much money coming into the village, a hand-out of 200 thousand rupiah (12 euro’s, according the finding (in Java) of one paper presented in the conference) would be a very safe investement. These prices are likely to go up. And with it, the money that will be siphoned off after elections. My second prediction would be that village politics would often revolve around competition between a limited set of elite families. We saw this already in the papers presented in the seminar: sometimes the sons of previous village heads would compete against each other. Given the amount of money needed to become a village head, and the stakes involved, it is well possible that prominent, moneyed families will continue to dominate village politics. That is the big pitfall of decentralization initiatives: if the stakes of local politics increases, local accountability mechanisms might not be strong enough to withstand the pressure.




3 thoughts on “Informal Politics and Indonesia’s new Village Law

  1. Nice article. I think the described situation is often true, although a counter movement of informed citizens making democratic choices and independent leaders rising without the support of political parties is gaining traction. So maybe studying these cases might offer insights into possible solutions. Although the rather pessimistic conclusions, based on the described discussions, do sound all to familiar and reflect what’s currently happening in so many villages around this beautiful country.


  2. Just yesterday, my childhood friend who lives in a remote village in Central Java, reported to me that her father in law just spent 1.5 billion rupiahs in a recent village head election. And he got lost. Her family was sad. They were disappointed with the voting behavior of the villagers, whom they view as “betraying” their trust. Which is funny… They should consider that buying vote is wrong at the first place. Well, my point is your first prediction seems to be true. More budget for the village means more money to the pocket of the elites.


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