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Whoever the winner, Indonesia's new leader must let districts rule

In late 2011, I found myself hanging over the edge of a cargo ship off the coast of the eastern Indonesian island of Liran, helping to haul an elderly woman aboard. Wobbling about on the deck of a small fishing boat beneath her was her daughter, pushing her up towards me. "Careful," yelled the daughter, "she's got a bad leg!" After some tugging and shoving, the woman made it aboard, where she sat on deck for three days and three nights. It was the only way she could get to a hospital.

     Until very recently, this was the norm for residents of Liran, too tiny even to have a decent pier, as well for inhabitants of thousands more of Indonesia's smaller islands. Radical political decentralization has begun to change the picture, but progress may be threatened by the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the country's July 9 presidential election.

Campaign signs line the road in Sinjai, South Sulawesi. Decentralization has made local elections increasingly relevant in Indonesia.

     Both candidates are claiming victory. The less convincing of those claims, going by sample counts of organizations that have accurately predicted the outcome of previous elections, comes from former general Prabowo Subianto. His election manifesto states plainly that he wants to review and revise the laws that have, since 1999, handed progressively more power to Indonesia's districts.

     His opponent Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, is a product of that decentralization trend. The founder of a modest furniture business, Widodo was not much involved in party politics before he stood for mayor of his hometown, the smallish central Java city of Solo. If he is confirmed as president by July 22, the deadline for announcing official election results, he will be less hostile to regional autonomy than Subianto, whose command-and-control style of leadership harks back to an earlier age. But the younger and more dynamic Widodo clearly wants to reform Indonesia's sprawling bureaucracy. That could disrupt easy access to government jobs, an important source of patronage and thus a key attraction of decentralization in many areas of Indonesia.

Challenging the status quo

For 32 years from the mid 1960s, Indonesia's former President Suharto worked hard to squeeze this diverse nation into a single mold, governed firmly from the capital, Jakarta. Hundreds of local cultures across thousands of islands were subordinated to an administrative system designed largely to meet the needs of an estimated 63% of the population that lives on the densely packed island of Java.

     Though Indonesians nominally voted every five years throughout Suharto's rule, the parliamentarians they selected had no power and little connection with the electorate. Provincial governors, district heads and military commanders were selected in Jakarta, most often from among the Javanese elite. Their prospects depended on pleasing their bosses in the capital, not meeting the needs of the population in out-of-the-way places like Liran.

     The regional autonomy law of 1999 changed all that by handing huge chunks of cash, together with decision-making authority over most aspects of government, directly to Indonesia's hundreds of districts. "Here's your budget, spend it as you please," was the message. Gradually, some local governments came to be more responsive to the specific needs of people in their districts. That responsiveness was accelerated in 2005, when district heads became directly elected.

     New districts were carved out of old ones. There are now more than 500 districts and municipalities, compared with fewer than 300 when the decentralization push began. Each has its own elected head and elected parliament. Indonesians also elect their provincial governors and parliamentarians. Opportunities for local politicians have multiplied, for better and for worse.

     The system has created an amazing laboratory for trying out different approaches to government and service delivery. District heads who do a good job, such as Widodo in Solo, are rewarded with a second term (he was re-elected with 90% of the vote). They can often then try out their ideas in a bigger arena. Widodo used his success in Solo as a springboard to the governorship of vast and unruly Jakarta, and thence, most likely, to the national presidency.

     Good local governments have also started to bring health centers, high schools and other services much closer to people in previously neglected areas. Less than three years ago, when I was helping haul old ladies onto cargo boats, there was not a single hospital in Southwest Maluku, where Liran is located.

     The new district was just starting to build a brand new capital, and the sick and the frail still had to travel to the "mother" district's hospital 610km away. Now the new district capital on Moa island, just a day's sail from Liran, has a hospital and a high school, as well as offices for the district head and parliament. The local government has also started providing subsidized transport for people from the smaller islands to reach these new services. That would have been unthinkable when decisions were made in Jakarta, 2,100km to the northwest.

The price of autonomy 

Decentralization has ushered in a new era of accountability and responsiveness on the part of local elites throughout the archipelago. However, many politicians are responsive in ways that undermine long-term development and fertilize corruption.

     Most notably, they dole out contracts and bureaucratic jobs in exchange for support with campaign funding. Giving civil service jobs to loyal supporters yields an added bonus: The amount of funding each district gets from Jakarta depends in part on the number of staff they employ. The center, which still pays a high proportion of civil servants' salaries directly, is supposed to be able to set limits. But local politicians frequently circumvent the rules, knowing they are expanding their budgets by expanding the bureaucracy. Other agencies are happy to take advantage, too. Two months ago, the new hospital in Moa was reported to be charging more than $40 each for mandatory certificates of good health and drug-free status to more than 500 locals newly recruited civil servants.

     As mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, Widodo fought hard to increase the professionalism of the civil service, and he seems genuinely dedicated to meritocracy. He prodded existing civil servants into action by arriving at clinics or in government offices unannounced. And he found hiring a new, better-qualified generation relatively easy. Homogenous Solo and wildly diverse Jakarta both have large pools of competent people from whom he hired staff, and the ethnicity of applicants was not much of an issue.

     The same is not true of many of the newer and more remote districts. In the Papuan highlands, on the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, for example, the political pressure to hire from among the locally dominant tribe is strong, but there are few qualified staff. "You complain because the people who treat you at the clinic are outsiders," an official told villagers at a public meeting in the highland town of Enarotali. "But there are only four (ethnic Papuan) qualified nurses in this district, and every one of them thinks she should be running a health center."

     If, as seems likely, Widodo becomes Indonesia's next president, he will be the first who did not come to power on a vision of a nation pulled together by the magnetic force of the center. He is better placed than any other politician on the national stage to recognize the virtue of a decentralized state, and he will be ably supported by his vice presidential nominee, Jusuf Kalla, from the eastern Indonesian island of Sulawesi, who has experience of negotiating with fractious regions. Kalla engineered the political settlement of the civil war in Aceh in 2005.

     Indonesia's next president should nurture decentralization, certainly, but he needs to do it with a firm hand. The fact that nearly a third of district heads have been investigated for corruption suggests there is not enough oversight in the current system. Safeguards are needed against ethnic chauvinism in the civil service, and it will not be possible to rectify decades of desperate under-investment in infrastructure without better mechanisms for coordination across districts and between different levels of government.

     Indonesia's scatter-plot geography is a challenge to its leaders. Liran, with its population of 800, will never have its own hospital, nor should it. But if Jakarta allows regions to guide their own destinies, while shepherding them towards nationally important goals, it should be possible to make sure three-day boat rides to see a doctor remain a thing of the past.

     Elizabeth Pisani is the author of Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.

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