Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Thinker: Islam in Office

The Jakarta Globe

Robin Bush
| July 04, 2011

Governance is Indonesia’s greatest challenge. In 1998, after 32 years of authoritarianism, the people demanded a democratic system and got one. In the ensuing 13 years, they have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to democratic values. They have twice directly elected a president and vice president, and directly elected more than 500 regional executives and 17,000 regional representatives. The question now is how well these elected officials are governing.

If poverty levels and the state of service delivery are any indication, there is room for improvement. More than 100 million people live on less than $2 a day. Twenty-five percent of children under five are malnourished, only 48 percent of the rural poor have access to clean water and only 55 percent of poor children complete junior high school.

One explanation for this poor performance is low capacity. Indeed, 70 percent of lawmakers elected in 2009 had never before served in the legislature. Celebrities, former officials’ wives and shop owners were all in the mix. But low capacity is not the primary cause of poor governance, and therefore pure technical assistance is not the most effective solution.

As any policy maker knows, law and policy making are political processes influenced by many competing interests. Recently, political scientists and development theorists have argued that to deliver truly effective governance it is not enough to reform institutions, or to provide officials with technical assistance, but that political elites must be engaged and mobilized. This call for “politics” to be brought back into development looks at the problem of vested interests and argues that unless reformers have powerful political leverage, government policy and spending will often undermine the interests of the majority, especially the poor.

Scholarly work on two large mass-based organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah (with a shared membership of 70 million people) has often not addressed the groups’ engagement in governance reform. During the reformasi period, these Muslim groups used their influence to encourage democratic reform. More recently, they have worked toward encouraging governance reform. Soon after Suharto’s fall, both groups joined efforts to promote democratic education, influence legislation related to religious freedom and ensure free and fair elections.

As democratic values have become increasingly integrated within political culture, NU and Muhammadiyah activists have turned their attention to more technical issues of governance reform, especially anticorruption efforts and pro-poor budget advocacy at the district level. The Asia Foundation has supported these efforts, on the premise that their political clout is necessary in order to counter vested interests at the local government level. Preliminary evidence indicates this is an effective strategy. For example, when a district head in the country’s east was resistant to civil society efforts to allocate line items toward health and education, NU, Nahdlatul Wathon and Muhammadiyah leaders convened 5,000 people for an istigosah (religious rally), after which the district head promised to increase the health and education budgets.

This activity on the part of NU and Muhammadiyah is not only relevant to service-delivery and technical governance reform, but also provides insights into their changing political role. There is a perception expressed within both organizations that they are facing an identity crisis as the country modernizes and integrates increasingly into the global economy and community. After the 2009 elections, many analysts argued that NU and Muhammadiyah were no longer the political brokers they had been for the past seven decades. Both groups publicly endorsed former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who garnered less than 12 percent of the vote.

If the primary influence of NU and Muhammadiyah remains at the local level, presumably this dynamic contributes to the further decentralization of power. Scholars have argued that while vertical accountability has improved with direct local elections in the post-reformasi era, horizontal accountability remains very weak — this indicates room for a reformist role for these organizations. Furthermore, if engaging political elites is an effective approach, decentralized power could be an opportunity for civil society organizations within NU and Muhammadiyah to effect reform and improve governance.

These groups have played an important role in democratic reform. The indications are that they will continue to play an equally important role in governance reform.

East Asia Forum

Robin Bush is the Asia Foundation’s representative for Indonesia. (Accessed 7/13/2011)

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