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155 9 Toning down the ‘big bang’: the politics of decentralisation during the Yudhoyono years Dirk Tomsa* When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became president in 2004, one of the biggest challenges he faced was the implementation of an ambitious regional autonomy program that had been initiated in 1999 by the first president of the post-Suharto era, B.J. Habibie. Famously described as ‘big bang’ decentralisation because of its sudden introduction and its comprehensive scope, regional autonomy commenced in practice in 2001 and was intended to be a key pillar of Indonesia’s democratisation process. It encompassed a series of decentralisation measures that ranged from the devolution of political authority to the restructuring of fiscal relations between Jakarta and the lower administrative tiers in the regions (Aspinall and Fealy 2002; Hill 2014). In 2004, just before Yudhoyono took office, these initial steps were refined and complemented by additional measures, notably the introduction of direct elections for local executive positions such as governor, mayor and district head (Erb and Sulistiyanto 2009). Throughout Yudhoyono’s time as president, the implementation of regional autonomy received rather mixed reviews. On the one hand, scholars and activists, as well as many central government officials, were highly critical of decentralisation due to its failure to accelerate regional economic development or to broaden the range of actors represented * The author would like to thank Michael Buehler, Gabe Ferrazzi, Blair Palmer and Erman Rachman for valuable feedback on an earlier draft. Research for this chapter was funded by the Australian Research Council through grant DP1096149. Update book 2014-15.indb 155 19/04/2015 11:39 am 156  The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation in local politics (Buehler 2010, 2014a; Hadiz 2010). On the other hand, local elites and the Indonesian public at large enthusiastically embraced decentralisation. While the elites primarily relished the abundance of new patronage opportunities, many ordinary Indonesians regarded decentralisation as one of the defining features of their young democracy because it allowed them to realise their local aspirations through the creation of new administrative entities and, most importantly, the direct election of their local leaders. By the end of Yudhoyono’s presidency, however, direct elections for local leaders had come very close to being abolished and democracy in Indonesia was on the brink of suffering a major setback. In September 2014, less than a month before Yudhoyono was due to leave office, a new regional election law was passed, stipulating a return to indirect elections for governors, mayors and district heads. Only four months later, though, the law was overturned and direct elections were reinstated. Significantly , President Yudhoyono played a pivotal role in both the abolition and the prompt restoration of direct local elections. First, it was his failure to assert his authority over his cabinet and his Democrat Party (Partai Demokrat, PD) that allowed the contentious legislation to pass during a dramatic parliamentary session on 25 September 2014. Then, after a massive public outcry, it was his decision to overturn the law retrospectively through a government regulation in lieu of law (peraturan pemerintah pengganti undang-undang, perppu) that paved the way for the restoration of direct elections.1 Although ultimately short-lived, the abolition of direct local elections in September 2014 was a key political event of the Yudhoyono era because it signalled the culmination of a consistent, if highly contested, process of recentralisation and democratic stagnation that characterised particularly the latter years of the Yudhoyono presidency (Tomsa 2010; Kimura 2011; Mietzner 2012). Although Yudhoyono himself may not have openly supported this process, he did nothing to stop it until his own reputation , as well as that of Indonesia’s democracy more generally, had been severely damaged. This dramatic end to Yudhoyono’s term in office demonstrates that, despite persistent pressure from the central government, the process of redesigning regional autonomy has been fraught with contestation and dispute. As will be shown in this chapter, the government did not always get its way, and widespread resistance from local elites and the public at large exposed significant underlying tensions in what are often depicted as fairly stable centre–periphery relations. 1 Yudhoyono issued the perppu on 2 October 2014, but it needed parliamentary approval to take effect. Despite having passed a law abolishing direct elections only in September 2014, parliament endorsed the perppu on 20 January 2015. See ‘Direct elections officially reinstated’, Jakarta Post, 20 January 2015. Update book 2014-15.indb 156 19/04/2015 11:39 am The politics...


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