Strategic Asia: When it Comes to Regional Autonomy in Indonesia, Breaking Up Should be Harder to Do

By webadmin on 07:34 pm Jun 09, 2010
Category Archive

Yosua Sitomorang

Is Indonesia breaking up before our very eyes? Since the advent of the 1999 Law on Regional Government, the nation’s regional administrations have been in a state of significant transition. Larger units of government are being broken down into smaller ones, and questions abound about who the real winners and losers are, why pressure for the process emerged and just where it will end.

Underpinning arguments for the 1999 law for this process of regional division, or p emekaran , were political elements. For some, the potentially destabilizing force of separatist pressures was the main incentive. It is not clear, however, how much the law was a reaction to thinking on separatism in some regions — and therefore a preventive measure — or if, by devolving new powers, it was hoped that separatism would never raise its divisive head.

What is clear, though, is that those who had not thought before about pemekaran very quickly noticed the potential benefits to their communities — financially, identity-wise and, most important, politically.

The enthusiasm with which Indonesia was “breaking down” rather caught the central government off guard. Seemingly politically stable parts of the nation suddenly could not function, or so it was said, without more accountable government, and closer to home, through the creation of their own district or subdistrict. With the advent of the revised Law on Local Government in 2004, local governments achieved even better local autonomy. In essence, the distance between decision makers (local government) and those affected by these decisions narrowed significantly, with a view to synchronizing policies, laws and actions more effectively and efficiently with locally expressed notions of public welfare.

The speed with which pemekaran was embraced by many regions caught many people by surprise, and the Ministry of Home Affairs figures speak for themselves — districts and subdistricts increased from 440 in 2004 to 497 in 2009. For many, what was even more surprising was the lack of discussion on the pros and cons of this process. Disgruntled civil society leaders emphasized the word “con.”

Many questioned the validity of the process, unconvinced as to whether everyone benefited equally. While improved public services were the goal for all, it was the perception of the masses that initial motivation for this division had been led by a handful of elites, ambitious to strengthen their power.

Those who heard of the economic efficiencies of increased autonomy countered with a whole slew of ideas ranging from a loss of economies of scale, the implementation of a new public administration system that prevented the entry of foreign investment, the mess that surrounded regional budget planning and the disproportionately large allocation of the local budgets focused on new local governance structures rather than any improvement of public services. This is further reflected in increased central government expenditures on newly created regions as a result of this rampant expansion of regions.

Legal aspects of autonomy have fared little better. Local laws, derived from local “parent” laws and not directly from national equivalents, are often in contradiction with national laws. Parallel sets of customary ( adat ) laws can make citizen rights even less clear.

Overall, if a 2007 Ministry of Home Affairs evaluation on the then 148 newly autonomous regions in 2005 is accurate, 80 percent of the local governments created through pemekaran are “failing” to do a good job. As reported in Media Indonesia, at least one survey in the same year found that pemekaran did not succeed in improving society’s welfare.

Given all of this, should unfettered regional division be allowed to continue, and if so, on what basis?

Carrots and sticks work in other parts of government, so why not here? Sticks should be brought to bear in regions where regional division has failed. Reintegration (though not a popular action even with central the government) and restricting flows of funds could be used. Carrots could be liberally distributed if future regional division is allowed.

Japan, for example, allows easy access to credit facilities for regions (though it also reduces budget allocations reserved for regions that want to expand). Allowing successful regions to raise funds independently may also encourage better performance.

However, for many these measures are seen as just tinkering, as are application of various new laws and regulations governing the sustainability of local government, performance evaluations of autonomous regions and the region merging processes. If pemekaran is here to stay, the government should focus on strengthening the overall implementation of the newly autonomous governments, helping them to undertake their role in looking after the welfare of all citizens.

But what about stopping further regional division altogether? The central government has already imposed a moratorium on expansion of this process. According to one researcher, the government should not focus purely on the “ideal” number of regions for the archipelago based on some topological, ethnic or religious imperative. Any further division should be based on real and proven advantages to the local population. Otherwise, what’s the point?

If pemekaran was expected to increase the economic welfare of residents through improved public services and create new job opportunities through the establishment of the regional administrations, then evidence for its success is thin. Indeed, such countries as Japan and Australia are reintegrating regions, burying regional differences for the benefit of national gains.

The central government is right to take a breather and re-evaluate its policy in this regard, because the cost of going back to complete centralization will not be measured just in rupiah terms, but in many intangible currencies: credibility, conflict and failure.

Yosua Sitomorang is a research associate at Strategic Asia, a Jakarta-based consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian countries.