- Beyond Oligarchy: Wealth, Power, and Contemporary Indonesian Politics ed. by Michele Ford, Thomas B. Pepinsky
There is an ongoing debate about how best to explain the dynamics of Indonesian politics after reformasi. The focus of this book is the oligarchy versus non-oligarchy thesis.
The oligarchy thesis is regarded as pessimistic because it implies that in spite of the fact that Indonesia has become a democracy, political life is essentially unchanged: political power is still in the hands of the same group of powerful actors who held it during the Soeharto era. On the other hand, the non-oligarchy thesis holds that Indonesian politics is progressing because democratic processes and institutions have been consolidated since the end of the New Order in 1998. The non-oligarchy thesis can also be categorized, as Thomas Pepinsky puts it, as a pluralistic approach to explaining Indonesian politics since it views the importance of various actors and the diverse outcomes of politics.
Following the Introduction, the first two chapters of Beyond Oligarchy present the oligarchy thesis from two of its main proponents. In Chapter 1, Jeffrey Winters argues that because of its wealth, oligarchy has always been, and continues to be, a determinant factor in Indonesian politics. Winters states: “The trend is clear. As Indonesian democracy consolidates, oligarchs are increasingly positioned as key arbiters of the country’s political life” (p. 33). Oligarchs, according to Winters, are actors who, because of the extreme concentration of wealth in their hands are empowered by that wealth. Since wealth concentration has always faced social and political challenges, the interest of oligarchs is to defend themselves against those threats (p. 14). In short, oligarchy is defined as “the politics of wealth defense” (p. 15). Oligarchic power flourished during the Soeharto era. It consisted of a group of oligarchs who were instrumental in the country’s economic development. These oligarchs were only tamed by Soeharto (an oligarch himself) and when the transition to democracy took place in 1998, not only was Soeharto’s control removed but, more importantly, they were able to seize the process of political life through the power of wealth required by the new democratic processes. “Their grip is particularly evident in the structure and operation of political parties”, argues Winters (p. 33). [End Page 489]
In Chapter 2, Richard Robison and Vedi R. Hadiz define oligarchy in a more structural way. Oligarchy, according to them, is “a system of power relations that enables the concentration of wealth and authority and its collective defense” (p. 37). In this system, political power is controlled by a small number of very wealthy people who use their wealth-originated power to defend their interests and gain more financial benefits while ignoring the interests of the public. Oligarchy can present itself in any regime because it is not a kind of regime itself. Similar to Winters, Robison and Hadiz argue that Indonesian democracy has not disrupted the oligarchy which has emerged in the post-Soeharto era, enabling it to play a key role, if not control, democratic political processes and institutions. “The social order of the previous regime and its ascendant political forces remain intact and in charge of the state”, argue Robison and Hadiz (p. 54). Democracy, including the programme for institutional fixes and good governance, will always be obstructed or even prevented as long as the structure of oligarchy and its social underpinnings remain in place. Thus, democratic reform by individuals or groups can only be piecemeal.
For the proponents of a more optimistic view on Indonesian democracy development, Winters, Robison and Hadiz’s arguments are clearly controversial. According to R. William Liddle in Chapter 3, there are two fatal weaknesses in this thesis. First, it “denigrates or dismisses all resources other than great material wealth that might be mobilized to reduce political inequality” (p. 76). For Liddle, other than wealth, important political resources in a modern democracy include income, status, prestige, information, organization, education and knowledge. Furthermore, it is a “counsel of despair” (p. 76) because it...