Using the "F" Word: Federalism in Indonesia's Decentralization Discourse

Gabriele Ferrazzi
Brandon University
Indonesia cast off Dutch-imposed federalism in favor of a unitary state. Soeharto's centralization madefederalism taboo in the New Order. In the current reform period, however, the concept is re-emerging, but federalism has yet to be discussed in an open, inclusive, and balanced manner. Decentralization policy is focused on the district, neglecting the political demands of the larger province. This policy is accompanied by a confused and misleading official discourse that is consistent with the ideology of power retention and maintenance of patrimonial governance. As a result of greater democratization of the polity, federalism is slowly entering official discourse. Although its prospects in the short term remain dim, support may grow for federal principles within Indonesia's unitary structure.

The current reform period in Indonesia has unleashed a torrent of regional discontent. The centralization of power and resources is being reviled. Political upheaval has facilitated Timor Loro Sae's exit from the republic, plus secessionist movements in the provinces of Aceh, West Papua, and Riau. All provinces are demanding a better deal, making clear that wider forms of autonomy, and possibly federalism, may be the price to pay for national peace. Regional unrest has highlighted deep divisions and divergent interests in the nation. Polls indicate that the populace is deeply worried about separatism. There is pressure on the national government to hold Indonesia together, and yet come to terms with the root causes of regional dissatisfaction. Politicians are anxious not to preside over Indonesia's disintegration, but the new government of President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) appears unable to generate a genuine dia- logue. The president himself has great difficulty even uttering the word "federalism" when pressed to discuss the issue. This essay examines background on federalism in Indonesia to explain the strong resistance to the federal model. It draws on a review of govern- ment documents, proceedings of various public fora, participant observa- tion, and personal interviews. Following a brief introduction to the analytical framework, the historical roots that shed light on center-region relations are examined in order to understand the center's tendencies toward unifi- cation and integration as tools for nation-building and domination. The current policy of emphasizing the smaller second-tier regions (more than 300 districts and cities), rather than the larger first-tier regions (26 prov- inces)' where federalist models might be more applicable, is placed in his- torical context.

The treatment of discourse about the state should be linked to "sociostructural and historical factors that condition its organization and administration."2 For Indonesia, this means highlighting the state's patri- monial character and examining the debate on federalism in terms of the material interests of the dominant central elite.

Patrimonialism Imperiled
Decentralization has become a two-edged sword for the fractious post- Soeharto elite. The reconstituted elite includes many of the same elements that made up the Soeharto elite. This is particularly true for the bureau- cracy, where the patrimonial style of governance of the New Order contin- ues to prevail. To gain legitimacy, a precious commodity today, the elite must undertake decentralization. In doing so, it is undercutting its power base and, thus, the sources of legal and extra-legal tributes that were com- monplace in Soeharto's patrimonial regime.3 Herein lies the tension that infuses the regional autonomy policies of the government and the official discourse on alternate forms of decentralization. Compounding the tension is the significant degree of democratization yielded by the central elite in the early days of the reform movement that toppled the New Order. Exacted from the Soeharto elite as the price of staying in the game (avoiding revolution), the new freedoms are making the old communication strategies of the government less effective. As a result, the legitimacy of government policies is more difficult to earn, and this is evident in the government's decentralization policies. Reduced le- gitimacy threatens the elites' tenuous hold on power and the "tribute" streams that flow toward centralized power. Discourse Analysis The discourse analytical perspective is gaining attention, particularly due to its ability to link micro-level interaction to macro-contexts re-Using the "F" Word search.4 It starts with the identification of actors and their interests and positions. Communication patterns can then be analyzed to note how the dominant ideology, political power, and governmental relations are sustained. In Indonesia, the lack of open high-level policy discussion is in part compensated by the ubiquitous seminar and workshop circuit, in the past largely sponsored or dominated by the government. The seminar/workshop approach to communication, persuasion, and mobilization has been taken up with gusto in the post-Soeharto period by civil society and quasi-government organizations. A more aggressive press is also generating more commentaries and exchanges that enlarge the po- litical discourse, adding opportunities to note lexicon and rhetorical strat- egies of government officials and other players.5