Towards the comparative study of informal politics

The character of informal politics varies greatly between countries. And that matters.

One of the good fortunes in my life as a researcher, is that I have had the change to study politics in two different Asian countries, India and Indonesia. That gift keeps on giving.  While studying Indonesia, I feel I understand India a little better, and vice versa. Doing fieldwork in two countries forced me to reflect on the differences, big and small, and how to make sense of these differences.

A big difference between India and Indonesia, and one that has occupied me since returning from fieldwork, concerns the differing character of election campaigns in both countries. In India election campaigns are largely run by political parties, while in Indonesia politicians rely on a more varied assemblies of personal networks, political parties and opportunistic volunteers. This temporary campaign organization is generally referred to as tim sukses or ‘succes team’. I gradually realized that this difference extended to character of governance in both countries: while politicians in India generally have an interest in providing (the workers of) their political party with privileged access to state resources, in Indonesia elected politicians have to thank this much varied group of tim sukses-members and personal supporters. The pictures above capture the difference: while the Indian politician on the left is surrounded by supporters wearing party symbols, the campaign poster of an Indonesian politician on the right does not even carry a single party logo. Instead the poster is full of logo’s of organisations that this politician helped set up – ranging from ‘Arief friends’ there to a composting forum and a fisherman association.

This difference made me realize that my discipline, political science, has a considerable blind spot. If you open a political science book, you will find plenty of analyses of formal dimensions of politics – of political parties, parliamentary systems, coalition building, media and so on. The comparative study of these formal dimensions of politics are major fields in political science. Yet the comparative study of informal dimensions of politics – such as the character of the networks through which politicians relate with voters – has barely begun. Take, for example, Arendt Lijphart’s oft-cited book on Patterns of Democracy. This book compares thirty six democracies in terms of formal – and, I would say, more boring! – aspects such as electoral systems, cabinets and parliaments. The widely varying character of informal dimensions of politics – such as the networks facilitating voter-politician interaction – is generally not considered relevant to understanding patterns of democracy. Comparative political studies generally struggles to capture and compare how and why informal politics varies between countries.

In a recently published article in Democratization, I tried to address this challenge. Using my fieldwork in India and Indonesia, I reflect on the how Indians and Indonesians rely on brokers to gain access to public resources, how this brokerage differs in these countries, and why that difference matters. I argue that if we would engage more often in such comparative studies, we would discern a process of ‘informal democratization’. The informal channels through which voters deal with politicians and bureaucrats shapes their capacity to hold these powerholders to account. This table below – taken from the article – illustrates the argument:

                                     Broker-Voter Relation
    Broker influence primarily based on capacity to get things done Broker influence primarily based on social status


Institutionalised ties with Politicians Party Brokers in India State Brokers in


No institutionalised ties Community brokers

in India (post-1980’s)

Notables in India

(pre-1980’s) and Indonesia

When informal political networks are fragmented and less marked by differences in status, voters face less risk in siding with the opposition, while brokers need to work much harder to retain their local influence and standing. When citizens rely on a wide range of brokers from different political parties – as in India – these brokers can hardly pressurize voters. They cannot punish disloyal voters by withholding access to important benefits. That is sometimes different in Indonesia, where voters do not have so much choice. Most rural Indonesians can only turn to their village head for access to state resources. As a result many voters see it as a risk if they would not follow the voting advice of this village head – as disloyalty might lead to curtailed access to important benefits.

In other words, democracies vary not only in terms of formal institutions, but also in terms of the informal practices and networks. The challenge of making democracy work, is also a challenge of getting a handle on these informal underbellies of politics.


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