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Citizenship: consequences for democratisation

Many Asian countries are in a process of democratisation. The expectation was that citizens would gradually gain more control over the functioning of their elites. Experts from Leiden have concluded that this process often fails to improve the quality of the administration. They researched the nature of citizenship in Indonesia in order to further their understanding of the obstacles to democratisation.

Indonesia: emphasise your roots

Indonesia has experienced significant change in recent decades. There is greater democracy and the government has undergone an intensive decentralisation process. These changes have affected the relationship between citizen and state. Researchers from Leiden have concluded that democratisation and decentralisation are often associated with a strengthening of ethnic and religious identities. Rather than more equality, there is thus a greater emphasis on differences.

Indonesian voters feel that their children’s school opportunities increase if they vote for a politician who belongs to their own ethnic group.

By appealing to the voter’s ethnic or religious background, political leaders hope to secure voter loyalty, and the voter hopes that the leader will get things done. ‘Voters in turn feel that their children’s school opportunities or the opportunity for hospital care or protection from migrants increases if they present themselves in this manner,’ says Professor of Indonesian History Henk Schulte Nordholt. ‘It is therefore important to ensure that a high-ranking civil servant or politician who belongs to your own ethnic group is elected.’

Indonesia: informal administration and clientelism

A second topic that Leiden researchers are considering, with regard to citizenship in Indonesia, is what is known as informal governance. ‘There are official rules and laws, but in practice the implementation of these is determined by clientelism – providing services in exchange for political support. Politicians and civil servants are inclined to do something if there is something in it for them. Citizens accept the existence of this kind of process,’ says Schulte Nordholt. The researchers want to find out how formal democracy and informal clientelism affect each other. 

In order to investigate what citizenship means for ordinary villagers, Indonesian PhD candidate Prio Sambodho spent a year living in a poor village. He learned the local language and became familiar with the local balance of power. He gradually discovered that governance and politics are very personal and that formal rules and procedures are more or less irrelevant. Poor villagers are formally entitled to certain benefits, but they only receive these following the intervention of richer intermediaries. In exchange for their help, these intermediaries are entitled to a small amount of the money. He also discovered that a local leader is allowed to be slightly corrupt, but that the local population does not accept greater transgressions.
What was surprising in the village that he researched was the important role that middle-class women played. They ensured that government money was shared out and felt responsible for this. Now in particular with more government money available at village level, the status of these women is increasing and they dare to be more assertive towards the village leader, who can no longer pocket government money unnoticed. With a group of women watching his every move, the village leader was feeling the pressure.
This means that forms of citizenship arise that may not be similar to Western patterns, but are no less important. Ward Berenschot: ‘It is often frightening and difficult for poor people to go directly to a doctor or hospital, because from bitter experience they know that they are ignored or do not understand what is going on. This is why the contact between citizen and government is often through intermediaries (for instance the village leader or one of the wealthier women). The outcome is that the right of every citizen to health care is transformed into a personal favour between elites and the poor. The elite promises medical help and in exchange for this service the citizen must vote for a certain candidate or support a village leader. However, these intermediaries do ensure that bureaucrats make more effort to observe the rights of the citizens.’

From Indonesia to larger areas

Experts from Leiden also compare different parts of Asia. Schulte Nordholt: ‘We see general trends. Elections are often accompanied with doling out large sums of money, which means that only the affluent can stand for election. It also means that candidates need the support of rich entrepreneurs in exchange for favours that they must grant once they are elected. Ironically enough, democratisation goes hand in hand with the exclusion of many people from standing for election.’

For Asia as a whole, the researchers conclude that democratisation processes make the existing clientelistic political system less hierarchical: citizens have more choice in intermediaries and can thus choose not to vote for certain people. At the same time, more democracy has banished clientelism altogether. On the contrary: the relationship between politics and business has become closer. ‘The middle class in particular must promote democratisation,’ says Adriaan Bedner. ‘This group is less susceptible to the interests of authorities or business, and it is less dependent on the state than poorer citizens are.’

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