Indonesia: The Dark Side of Indonesian Democracy: Ethnicised Local Politics


Gerry van Klinken

In some parts of Indonesia outside Java, ethnicity is now the key form of political identity. Post-New Order democracy has taken a communitarian turn that looks durable. Kalimantan is full of examples, particularly at the sub-provincial district (kabupaten) level. The 1999 autonomy laws increased the financial and administrative powers of the district chief or bupati. A bupati is elected by the district legislative assembly. This should mean the coveted position is filled along party lines. But in practice ethnicity determines the outcome.

West Kalimantan’s militant Dayak movement, which began by ethnically cleansing West Kalimantan of Madurese immigrants in 1997, culminated in the appointment of several Dayak bupati. Sanggau and Sintang are two examples. Other kabupaten resolved Dayak-Malay rivalry by adopting ‘power-sharing’, where the bupati and their deputy belong to opposite ethnic groups. Examples are Kapuas Hulu and Ketapang. Elsewhere again the solution was to split the kabupaten in two, one for each. So Sambas split off Bengkayang for Dayaks, leaving a rump Sambas for Malays.

Similar arrangements emerged in the northern part of East Kalimantan. Bulungan district was divided into Malinau, Nunukan, and the city of Tarakan, plus a rump Bulungan. It seems to be common knowledge that Malinau is for Dayaks, Bulungan for Bulungan Malays, and Nunukan for Tidung Malays.

Only Kalimantan’s large cities remain unaffected by this ethnicisation of local politics. Pontianak, Banjarmasin, Balikpapan, Samarinda and Tarakan are multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan enclaves in this huge island’s landscape of ethnic competition.

In one way the whole phenomenon does not matter very much. The upcoming election will not pit ethnic groups against each other, because the parties in Kalimantan have built multi-ethnic constituencies. The provincial capitals are largely unaffected. Nor are we likely, in my mind, to see repeats of the ethnic violence in West Kalimantan in 1997 and 1999, and in Central Kalimantan in 2001. Violence is now more expensive because the security apparatus have recovered some of their capacity to control it. It is also less necessary because ethnic deal making has settled into a set of unwritten rules.

But in a more fundamental way the ethnicisation of local politics in Kalimantan and elsewhere is troubling. Forcing citizens into a small number of local ethnic boxes makes life difficult for the many Indonesians who do not live where they were born, or whose parents belong in different boxes. Ethnic politics can be stable, as in Malaysia and Singapore. But it seems a step backwards from the inclusive, republican Indonesia that the revolutionaries fought for in 1945. Ethnicised local politics could be the dark side of Indonesian democracy, to borrow a phrase of the scholar Michael Mann.

WATCHPOINT: All eyes are on the outcome of the general election on 5 April.


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