Short-term Gain, Long-term Loss of Money Politics in Indonesia’s Regional Electoral Process

Continued indications of money politics in Indonesia’s 2020 regional election. Credit: RRI


As the Indonesian Constitutional Court is busy resolving disputes from the 2020 regional elections and the Congress is currently debating whether or not to revise the Law on Public Elections, the unresolved issue of transactional politics have risen yet again in public discussions. On the context of regional elections, a Member of the House of Representatives (DPR) recently mentioned that there were indications of the proliferation of ‘money politics’ during the 2020 local election campaign process. Perludem (an NGO composed of former Election Supervisors), has mentioned that the practice of “political dowry”  to political parties during nomination and the buying of votes is still very much alive in regional electoral process and will need to be resolved for effective representations. Amidst tensions in Indonesia which can potentially lead to unrest due to rising religious fundamentalism and income disparity exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of a transparent, accountable, and constituent-based representation may be more pressing than it seems.

Parties, Parliaments, Elections, and Decentralization: Vehicles for Representation?

When Soeharto’s corrupt centralized regime ended in 1998 due to inflation and massive social unrest, there were major changes made to the Indonesian political institution. State power, which for 32 years had been in the hands of politico-business elites, was to be determined by democratic representation—through the institutions of parties, parliaments, and elections. Specifically, the Laws no. 2/1999 (on political parties), no. 3/1999 (on elections) and no. 4/1999 (on the constitution and status of various representative bodies) impacted the authority of both political parties and parliaments—both national and local. Political parties would become the main vehicle for contending interests, while the parliament would no more be just a rubberstamp for executive powers—it would be a genuine arena in which policies will need to be won over by political contestation. With this institutional framework, it was hoped that genuine societal interest—especially those of marginalized groups—would be represented politically.

Furthermore, regional or local government would be given greater authority on local resource management and decision-making through the ‘decentralization laws’—Laws no. 22/1999 on Regional Governance and no. 25/1999 on the Financial Balance Between Central and Regional Government. Whereas before Law no. 5/1974 made heads of local governments directly accountable to provincial superiors (who in turn were bound to officials in Jakarta), the decentralization laws made the kabupaten (regencies) and cities the main authority for regional governance. Thus, provincial governors were relegated to mere ‘representatives’ of the centre, with little authority over the city’s mayor or the regency’s bupati. Further decentralization was made in 2014 when desa or villages (the lowest administrative area in Indonesia aside from the urban-based kelurahan) was given further authority in allocating budgets and development efforts through its popularly elected village heads by Law No.6/2014 on Villages. Previously, under Law no.5/1979, village heads were simply civil servants in a hierarchical Java-centric model of administration.

With the institutional changes mentioned above, the most observable effect was the prominence of electoral politics—though this was not to work as intended. Ideally, the electoral process should be ‘honest, free, and fair’ so that the representational outcome will accurately involve contending social interests of the society. However, it soon became apparent that money-politics had become prevalent—often taking the forms of ‘mahar’ (dowry) to political parties, extra-legal campaign funds, the bribing of citizens, and the mobilization of paramilitary groups or thugs.

The practice of “political dowry”, in which an aspiring candidate will provide financial ‘compensation’ to political parties in order to be nominated in the voting ballot, is a hard task to prove in legal terms–though it remains a public secret that the practice is still in effect. In the regional election of 2018, the media mentioned at least four cases with suspicious activities relating to political dowry—most controversial among them being the East Java provincial election with candidate La Nyalla Mattalitti explaining that he was asked by Prabowo Subianto (the head of the Gerindra party and now Minister of Defence) to cover various costs— IDR 28 million (~USD1,990.00) for ‘witness’ money outside the voting booths and IDR 20 million for unexplained reasons. Currently, the regional election law already has a rule in place that sanctions parties proven to be involved in political dowry (article 47 in Law 10/2016), but the enforcement of this law is not at all effective—Bawaslu, the agency responsible for supervising the local election, does not have the capabilities or authority for investigative efforts. Of equal importance, the practice of political dowry is also supported by the fact that independent candidates have more stringent administrative requirements to be eligible for nomination in the voting ballot—not to mention the support they would need from parties in local parliaments if elected.

As with the case of political dowry, extra-legal campaign fund is also a problem within which law enforcement seems to be carried out flippantly—thus allowing for all kinds of financial irregularities during elections to go unpunished. Based on the audit results on the campaign funds during the 2020 elections, it was declared that 273 out of 739 paired candidates for local heads disregarded the law regarding campaign fund transparency and accountability. Regarding this matter, members of the General Elections Commission of Indonesia (KPU) explained that candidates often treated the campaign finance reporting documents as mere formality—in fact, even if candidates were to report their funds, the number is often way smaller than the actual number received and spent. It is worth noting that based on the findings of Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) on the 2017 and 2018 regional elections, only few local candidates used their own funds—around 80 percent of candidates had in fact  received funds from cukong or ‘sponsors’. Logically, this behaviour increases the likelihood for corruption in the future—as candidates would likely use their positions to pay back the ‘kickbacks’ they owed once elected in office.

Based on data from Kompas (12/1/2021), it was found that candidates with more campaign funds—‘war chests’—had a higher probability of being elected. A possible explanation for this, is due to the channelling of funds into many illegal activities which would increase the likelihood of being elected. Ryaas Rasyid, a regional autonomy expert and the head of Tim Sepuluh (a group of technocrats responsible for the decentralization laws under Habibie’s government), notes that citizens would often wait for ‘the envelope’ during upcoming election day—in which this is a common occurrence in many regions. In the villages, citizens would expect an envelope of IDR 50,000-200,000 for their votes while candidates would also donate to the local mosque—among many other things which could be done. What this shows is that local citizenry is also partly at fault for the election misconduct—on one hand they expect an honest, accountable, and transparent representation while on the other hand they willingly accept diverse forms of bribes.

Besides the trading of money for influence, money-politics can also take a more coercive (and violent) form—the mobilization of (displaced) youth gangs, paramilitary groups, and thugs for political purposes. Unlike during Soeharto’s era, in which ‘sponsored’ henchmen and enforcers would find patronage within the local Golkar leadership, military, and/or police command, in the ‘reform’ era they would find patronage within political parties and its ‘entrepreneurial’ members. Thus, in the regions lies scattered headquarters of these groups and their party affiliation banners—PDIP’s ‘satgas’, Golkar’s ‘Pemuda Pancasila’, PPP’s ‘Gerakan Pemuda Ka’bah’, etc. Recently, one group that has been catching the attention of the public is the seemingly ‘radical’ Front Pembela Islam—who in the past had been linked to several Islamic-oriented parties, including the nominally secular PAN. Interestingly, during the Presidential election in 2019 they chose to ally themselves with Prabowo Subianto and his Pancasila­-oriented party Gerindra—showing just how loose the allegiances of these groups are. Some members of these paramilitary groups have even tried to contest the regional elections—such as the aforementioned La Nyalla Mattalitti who is a senior member of the Pemuda Pancasila.

Putting Aside Representation for Elite Interest

In Indonesian politics, an act of exchanging political influence for monetary gains or access (and vice versa), often cannot be diagnosed simply as an individual act of opportunism.  This type of behavior is so widespread and regular in Indonesian governance, that many have thought it to be structural, systematic and with historical precedent. Besides mentioning the survival of the New Order oligarchy and their networks of patronage in the era of political parties, the academician Vedi Hadiz for example has mentioned the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ character of Indonesian elites that dominate the political arena—small-scale capitalist, rural propertied classes, and petty traders whose well-being is closely dependent on his/her relation with the state. Historically, this could be the attributed to Dutch rule—where no local elites were given opportunity to flourish in an economy based on agrarian export (to be able to own large amounts of land and be able to own the means to production), it instead creates an interest towards the state as a means for resource and status.

Nowhere else is this view more justified and visibly seen than in the case of the Indonesian decentralization—as many national and local elites seemingly try to appropriate local state power through contesting the regional elections. With decentralization, local positions now offer many rent-seeking possibilities, and thus alliances with local business interest are forged—especially in resource rich areas, such as Kalimantan with its forestry. In more industrial areas, such as Medan and Surabaya, local elites have much access to resources through their levy-making authorities and control over local budgets—officials are able to approve or reject projects, for example, and are able to be involved in the widespread practice of marking up their actual costs.

Recently, the nomination and eventual triumph of Gibran Rakabuming Raka  and Bobby Nasution—President Jokowi’s son and son-in-law—in the regional election of Solo and Medan, respectively, have sparked public scrutiny of Jokowi seemingly trying to establish a political dynasty. The public scrutiny for Jokowi is not without basis, as political dynasties are seemingly the trend in regional elections, with family oligarchies capturing the regional elections for more than two periods. Not to mention, both Gibran and Bobby are figures that started with small-businesses (and no prior experience in governance) and had managed to expand their businesses through the political connections of their parents. Adding to suspicions, during the discussion to revise the Law on Public Elections, every political party seemingly agree to postpone the 2022 & 2023 regional elections to 2024 after Jokowi made a statement  to not revise the Law on Public elections—thus giving both his relatives a prolonged 4-year term. Previously, parties such as Golkar and NasDem had supported the revision meant to separate the regional election (in 2022 and 2023) and the presidential and national legislative election (in 2024)—which in technical terms made sense since the previous election in 2019 which combined the regional elections with national elections had caused 894 Election Supervisors to lose their lives due to fatigue. It is worth noting that Jokowi’s party, PDIP, endorses revising the Law but not to change the schedule of the regional elections since the government ‘is fully concentrated on overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic and restoring the national economy.’ This endorsement is questionable, as the 2020 regional elections was rushed despite COVID-19 concerns and the resultant casualties.

The bickering of political parties vis-a-vis revising the Law on Public Elections mainly shows that very little concern from the elites is given in addressing the problem of money-politics or the regional electoral process in general. Besides COVID-19 and the schedules for elections, most media report that the main discussion of political parties revolves around parliamentary and presidential thresholds—which would have an effect on the balance of power between political parties. Very little concern is given to, for example, strengthening the capabilities of Elections Supervisory agencies. Instead, the reverse seems to happen—there is seemingly an effort to weaken supervisory institutions. For one, the authority of the KPK to form representatives in regions (provinces) is abolished through the Law No. 19/2019 and Commission Regulation (Perkom) 7/2020, with changes in the structure of coordination and supervision of corruption eradication mainly focusing on the Jakarta region. This is despite corruption occurring highest in the regional areas based on the data from 2004-2020—especially in the regencies/cities.

The prevalence of money-politics in regional elections indicates that networks of patronage based on financial gains still occurs despite institutional reforms—though its pervasiveness and character is debatable. Local candidates are thus not bound to social interest (despite claiming to do so in campaign periods). Rather, they are bound to patrons who can offer access to state power—specifically official positions which offer ‘gate-keeping’ authorities or rent-seeking possibilities. And with the current political arena seemingly still dominated by ‘petty bourgeois’ elites and their political party vehicles it looks like very little change will happen in the future.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Rizky Sadali is currently a researcher holding a Master degree in Public Policy. His research interests are on political economy issues, particularly in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *