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.