November 21, 2016


'Biggest invisible thing on earth?' - It's called Indonesia, and it's waking up (Elizabeth Pisani, 20 November 2016, The Guardian)

Indonesia's democratic rebirth came with what some see as a second wave of decolonisation. For the first five and a half decades of its existence, the nation was firmly ruled from the capital Jakarta, largely for the benefit of the 60% of Indonesians who are squashed in to the single island of Java.

The resentment this caused contributed to the 1998 downfall of the country's second leader, Suharto, after 32 years in power. There followed a "big bang" decentralisation that turned Indonesia's many geographic, cultural and ethnic fiefdoms from vassals of the central government in Jakarta into quasi-autonomous democracies.

Among the many votes Indonesians now cast, the one that affects their lives most directly is that for district head or mayor. Voters laughingly refer to these local potentates as "little Sultans" because they are so powerful. They make most of the important decisions about education, healthcare and local infrastructure; they dole out jobs and contracts, regulate entertainment, and negotiate the transport routes that are all-important in an island nation.

Though Indonesia's current president, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has made much of his support for infrastructure development, it is driven less by a well-planned push from Jakarta than by active demand from politicians directly elected in district and provincial governments. Though progress is slow, those demands are gradually overcoming the hurdles raised by the country's geography.

Decentralisation has had an effect on innovation-squashing bureaucracy also, though not all of it good. In many areas, district governments have simply pasted cumbersome new layers on to an already dysfunctional administrative system.

But in a few districts, adventurous politicians have experimented with radical reforms: they require civil servants to show up on time, to treat citizens with respect, to do their jobs without being bribed. These individuals have become local heroes and media darlings: their popularity has in many cases provided a springboard to higher office, including the presidency. Jokowi rose from small-town mayor to governor of Jakarta and on to the presidency on the strength of his no-nonsense approach to local government.

Posted by at November 21, 2016 2:09 PM