Indonesia’s Election Results–Some Snap Reactions on Implications for Anticorruption

Two days ago, after about two weeks of wrangling, accusations, and general uncertainty, Indonesia’s General Election Commission declared Joko Widodo the winner of the July 9 presidential election. Mr. Joko, the populist governor of Jakarta and former mayor of Surakarta, defeated Probowo Subianto — a retired army general and son-in-law of former President/dictator Suharto — by about 8 million votes (out of almost 135 million total votes cast). Mr. Probowo is still contesting the election result, asserting widespread fraud, but most observers doubt that the Constitutional Court will overturn the result, particularly given the margin of victory and the fact that the outcome was consistent with a number of independent polls conducted by reputable organizations.

This result is a big deal for many reasons–including the implications for the struggle against corruption in Indonesia and elsewhere. I am certainly no expert on Indonesian politics, so there’s much about this development that I don’t understand. But, having followed the Indonesian election from a distance, let me toss out some off-the-cuff thoughts on how one might think about the result from an anticorruption perspective. I hope that people who know this stuff better than I do will weigh in with their own reactions. Here goes:

An initial observation: the centrality of corruption as a campaign issue shows just how important that issue has become in Indonesia, and makes me cautiously optimistic about the potential for significant progress on this issue over the next couple of decades. Although many have argued that democratization should reduce corruption — and there is indeed strong evidence that consolidated, longstanding democracies do indeed have much lower levels of (perceived) corruption — the evidence that democratization reduces corruption in the short-to-medium term is mixed at best. Indeed, some studies actually suggesting that recent or partial democracies have worse (perceived) corruption than autocracies (something I’ve written about before). And there are plenty of examples where, even though citizens constantly complain about corruption, voters nonetheless return corrupt politicians to power–not so much because they approve of corruption, but because they care about other issues more, or don’t have many other viable options. Often, anticorruption is an issue for niche parties, not the mainstream parties. But in the Indonesian presidential election, the corruption issue was front-and-center, and Mr. Probowo’s links to the Suharto-era regime and to a number of corruption scandals involving his party or affiliates appear to have been significant political liabilities. So, in Indonesia at least, democratic contestation may indeed help induce more serious anticorruption efforts.

Speaking of the impact of political reform on corruption, Indonesia’s post-Suharto transition was characterized not only by democratization, but also by decentralization, and the election result may illustrate the importance of that second development for anticorruption in Indonesia. The academic and policy literature contains a lot of discussion about the impact of political decentralization on corruption, and usually this discussion focuses on questions like whether local governments are more or less accountable to the people, and whether competition between local/provincial governments is likely to spur a beneficial “race to the top” or a destructive “race to the bottom” (for more on this issue, in the context of China and Russia, see Meng and Anna’s posts here and here). But another effect of political decentralization, highlighted by Mr. Joko’s meteoric political rise, is that greater decentralization may create more opportunities for political entrepreneurs who are not part of the traditional establishment, and who lack the usual elite credentials, to hone their political skills, build support, and eventually break into national politics. In some countries, this may be very useful in terms of fighting corruption. This is likely to be the case when ascending through the traditional channels leads to, or perhaps requires, entanglements in networks of corruption and cronyism. Furthermore, an “outsider” mentality may also be very useful when confronting systemic corruption, because those who are not part of the traditional system are more likely to try new things and be willing to shake things up. The most optimistic supporters of Mr. Joko characterize him as the ideal representative of how Indonesia’s democratic decentralization has produced a new breed of political leader, not beholden or sympathetic to the “old boy” networks of the Suharto era.

But before we get too excited about that prospect, it’s worth keeping in mind at least two drawbacks (from an anticorruption perspective, and perhaps more generally) with a political system that facilitates the rise of “outsider” politicians through local/provincial elections.

  • First, even if Mr. Joko is everything his supporters believe him to be (and that remains to be seen), not every politician who succeeds operating outside the traditional elite national channels is a paragon of virtue, and indeed sometimes political success at the local/provincial level involves developing, mobilizing, and relying on corrupt political machines. That’s not to say that in Indonesia specifically, political decentralization and the concomitant expansion of political opportunities did not help cultivate a “new breed” of cleaner, pro-reform politicians. Perhaps it did. But there’s no guarantee things will play out the same way in other countries. In other settings, decentralizing political power may lead not to the emergence of pro-reform, anti-graft outsiders, but rather of wheeling-and-dealing machine politicians.
  • Second, an “outsider” style is often more effective in campaigning than in governing–and, in the particular context of anticorruption, railing against the pervasive corruption is much easier than actually doing something about it. It’s likely that most everyone would agree with that statement. The greater difficulty — and perhaps the more controversial claim — is that outsiders, precisely because of their outsider status, may have more difficulty figuring out how, politically and practically, they can achieve their goals. Ironically, “outsider” leaders are at greater risk of becoming more dependent on “insiders” to get anything done once in government. (Observers of U.S. politics might be familiar with this phenomenon — think about how many members of Congress ran as “outsiders,” only to find themselves, once elected, beholden to aides and lobbyists who are Washington DC lifers). To avoid this “capture” by existing networks, outsider reformist leaders must be unusually confident and competent, and must find aides and advisors who both share their reformist vision and know how to work the levers of power within the existing system. Mr. Joko may or may not fit this description; only time will tell, and I don’t know enough even to make an educated guess. But the larger point is that, from an anticorruption reform perspective (or from a government reform perspective more generally), it’s not clear that an outsider–who may be more committed to more far-reaching reform and more willing to take risks–is generally better than an insider–who may have a better sense of how to get things done and how to build consensus for incremental reform.

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