Indonesia's chequebook democracy

Indonesia's chequebook democracy
Restoring the integrity of Indonesia's lawmakers is a major priority.

INDONESIA - When House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Hajriyanto Thohari unveiled a supposed plan to allocate - for the purpose of funding Indonesia's political parties - a mind-boggling 16 trillion rupiah (S$1.9 billion) a year from the state budget, he caused quite a stir among those who care about the issue.

As it turned out, there was no plan and the senior Golkar politician had merely plucked the figure out of the air, halving what he falsely understood was the 2 per cent a year Japan spent for the same purpose.

What is important, however, is that Mr Thohari was speaking at a forum where the subject was party public funding. It suggests that the political establishment is finally getting around to debating a subject that really should be taking on increasing resonance.

While there are notable exceptions such as the United States, New Zealand, India and Switzerland, most other democracies do provide state aid to parties to cover either routine administrative and/or election campaign costs.

With a recent Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) poll showing only 5 per cent of the electorate as card-carrying members - and just 2.5 per cent making donations - Indonesian parties get most of their funding from other private sources.

As a result, some have fallen dangerously under the control of oligarchic interests, a development that Jakarta-based electoral expert Paul Rowland feels is one of the biggest single threats to Indonesia's nascent democracy.

Australian National University academic Marcus Mietzner agrees. In a ground-breaking 2007 paper on party public funding, he argued that corporate donations serve only narrow economic interests and rarely benefit parties as institutions.

In the case of the long-established Golkar party, for example, the grossly swollen central board means decision-making is now centralised around a tiny inner circle, making it little different from when it served as the late president Suharto's machine.

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