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The Current Indonesian Political Scene

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When an old Indonesia hand such as Bill Liddle praises a book to high heavens, we may be sure that we hold something special in our hands. And so it is! The book is not only ambitious, but contains an exhaustive and meticulous analysis of what has been said and what there is to say about political parties in Indonesia, with the considerable merit of doing these things in the comparative perspective that places the Indonesian case in its proper dimensions.

 At many instances in the text, the author specifies his aims. His long-standing observations—since 1998—initially concentrated on the role of the armed forces in the post-Suharto transition; since 2007, however, his research focussed on the internal workings and dynamics of the main parties and the world of Indonesian party politics in the hope of understanding how Indonesian parties really function while evaluating their strengths and weaknesses (xi).

 The Introduction expands on this aim by specifying some of the conceptual questions the analysis of post-Suharto party politics faces. First, are Indonesian parties as dysfunctional as many authors suggest, have they rather contributed to the consolidation of the democratic system? Second, if these parties exhibit serious deficiencies, to what extent are these characteristic of regional or global trends in party politics? In short, what in all this is intrinsically Indonesian, and what is a reflection of the state of political parties around the world?

 Consequently, we are presented with a survey of influential writings on regional and world-wide trends in party development, first of all in East and Southeast Asia. This is followed with noting common trends in new democracies. Subsequently, current patterns of  party politics in established democracies are analysed, which calls for a critical discussion of the influential cartelisation theory on the tendency of parties of growing dependent on the state while trying to milk its resources by forming a cartel—a tendency that some scholars even see in the consolidated democracies of the West (4-5).

 As this ambitious agenda is meticulously executed through, first, an analytic-historical survey of Indonesian parties and party systems; then the scope is widened to the relationship between Indonesian parties and the state. This endeavour focuses first on the tendency of such parties to fuse versus the dominant one trying to establish hegemony. Second, whether Indonesian parties are withdrawing in self-satisfaction or maintain their relevance through ongoing contestation?

 These broad questions are followed by chapters on party organisation and internal democracy, with foci on leaders, branches with influence versus members that are marginalised; on inter-party competition as apparent in elections, coalitions, and parliament; on the enduring role of ideology and parties' political action. It is of interest to note that ample space has been given to the fact that Indonesian politics is given to coalition building, often to a far greater extent than the mathematics of democratic politics requires, and so it is no wonder that the first directly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, relies on what Indonesians now refer to as a "rainbow coalition".

 In the concluding chapter, the findings are discussed in the light of party- institutionalisation theories, while explaining why Indonesian parties are better institutionalised than scholars of Indonesian politics tend to admit. Cartelisation is far from complete, which has much to do with the strength of civil society and the opposition by the state. Moreover, post-2004 institutional changes have made elections less party-centred, and also brought the weakness of Indonesian party financing to light, which gives rise to specifically Indonesian characteristics, including patronage-infected structures that drive political parties in the arms of oligarchic interests (223).

 This gives rise to party leadership becoming a tool of political entrepreneurs who have little interest in institutional party development, but who simply use parties to serve their short-term business strategies, at the same time keeping parties too weak to control the state. Moreover, many of the independents who "purchased" party nominations for local office have been career bureaucrats—some 40% of them—who have been socialised in civil-service schools. Next to this, half the cabinet seats are in the hands of non-party figures, as are most state agencies. As a result, it is the state overwhelming political parties rather than the other way round (223-4).

 In this way, the research not only showed the weak empirical basis of the cartelisation thesis for Indonesia, but also pointed to the methodological weaknesses of the cartelisation approach (226). Next to this, whereas the study does not refute the structuralist explanation of Indonesia's vulnerability to money politics and undue business influence over legislation and governmental regulation, it also places considerable emphasis on the dysfunctional regime of party financing and the necessity for reform in this area (228-9).

 To understand parties—Indonesian and others—we need to realise that the era of mass parties has past, and that our understanding will be enhanced by placing Indonesian parties in broader comparative frameworks. Everywhere, parties have now to compete with other societal actors, whether digital media, NGOs, religious associations, etc. Parties will be much slimmer, professionalised and media-dependent. Taking in these trends is essential for a fair assessment of parties from Europe to Oceania (234).

 Money, Power, and Ideology is too rich in contents and details to be summarily discussed as it would seriously distort the book's balanced approach. Even so, we may safely conclude that it is a pellucid, all-round introduction to the study of political parties in all their aspects that will greatly enhance the understanding of both teachers of the subject and their students, and that will stand up to all sorts of challenges for a considerable time to come.

 The book was published under the auspices of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in its Southeast Asia Publication Series.


Niels Mulder retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he concluded his swan song, Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia; Reflections and observations. Saarbruecken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing (print-to-order ed., ISBN 978-3-659-13083-0) 2012. <>.



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