Indonesian Parties Changing Their Spots?

A talk with Tom Power

Tom Power, Kai Clark

PHOTO: Kai Clark


7 December 2017

“If I go to the parliament in Jakarta, it’s easy for me to just call up someone and ask ‘do you have time for a chat?’ They might be a member of parliament or head of a commission, but often times they are willing to talk. That’s the sort of access you just don’t get in Australia, especially if you’re a young guy that doesn’t have a name as a high-flying journalist or a diplomat or a professor.”

Tom Power is a PhD candidate studying how Indonesian parties adapt as they alternate in and out of office. His research revolves around case studies on the current governing party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), and on a former coalition party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Tom researches by probing government and party officials on party fundraising and organisation. “To get these interviews,” he explains, “its sort of like snowballing.” For one of his first interviews, Tom sent an email to a rising star within the PKS — and, for a change of pace, got a response.

After interviewing her, she introduced him to other politicians who then introduced him to more party members. “Usually you interview them and they say ‘here’s the number of such-and-such’. It’s like you’re always on the hunt for someone to meet.”

His trophy collection includes several government ministers, the leader of PKS, and the secretary-general of PDIP. The secretary-general had noticed him at a couple of party events and one day asked Tom “to come up to Medan for a day and we’ll attend an event.” Flying first-class there, Tom spent the whole day chatting with him and attended meetings with other party elites.

The willingness of these politicians to talk to Tom is astounding, not just because of their seniority, but also because Tom is investigating how they funnel government money into party coffers.

“There’s a bit of a culture of impunity,” Tom tentatively remarks. “Indonesian politicians feel more comfortable talking to foreigners rather than local researchers — because they think a foreigner is less likely to dob them in.”

Indonesia ranks 90 out of 176 on the corruption perception index and much academic discourse on its public affairs analyses its patronage politics — where politicians offer money or power in exchange for votes.

Many politicians illegally take money from the state or use government positions to obtain kickbacks. And because Indonesian public subventions are too small to prop up most political parties, much of this money flows back into the party to feed itself.

But when parties are kicked out of government, they fall harder than a disowned trust fund baby. In 2010 the PKS, when it was in power, held a famous party conference in the Ritz Carlton, which Tom described as, “all-expenses paid, in the centre of Jakarta, with Swiss chefs preparing every meal.”

“And five years later, I went to the next party conference that was in a budget hotel in a satellite city of Jakarta. Outside the hotel, there was a market where party members were selling stuff to each other to raise money to donate back to the party. It was a classic example of the party basically going broke.”

Yet, PKS’s downfall was the eureka moment for Tom’s research. A year after losing power, PKS ousted many elderly leaders and replaced them with young blood. The new leaders immediately transformed the party from a pluralistic and inclusive party to an ideologically rigid party with a greater emphasis on grassroots activism.

The reforms helped the party field more competitive candidates, winning sub-national districts and more access to patronage. Party leaders also cultivated more zealous party sympathisers, increasing the flow of grassroots donations and expanding the pool of loyal recruits willing to run for elections.

Using the PDIP as another example, Tom explains that when in power it originally operated as a clientelistic party — which uses patronage politics to maintain its rule. But when voters kicked them out of office, they cleaned up their act and focused on ideological activism, fielding competitive candidates, and nurturing a strong party base. They had remoulded themselves as, what political scientists call, a ‘cadre party’. But, when back in government, they immediately relapsed into a clientelistic party.

Tom uses these examples to show the importance of understanding how political parties adapt as they shuffle through the revolving door of power. His research is also significant in that it explores a widely neglected field of political science.

“There is literature on party type, there is literature on change of party type, but there isn’t really literature on how being in and out of government affects party type. That’s something new. If these patterns are seen in other countries, this could be a new theory in political party operation.”

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