The Shitty Politicians Theory of Indonesian Politics

Today I had cause to think about a basic question for scholars of contemporary Indonesia. What is the mainstream explanation for policy outcomes in the local level? So, when a regency implements a good policy, or a bad policy, why does this happen? How can we explain it? It was great because it was asked by a non-specialist, who was genuinely curious.

In trying to come up with an answer, I was kinda stumped. There are plenty of accounts of policymaking in individual regencies that describe rich interactions of political agency, material incentives, historical legacies, advocacy networks, voting and popular mobilization, etc…but they tend to be highly specific to individual contexts. There are also plenty of narratives about why Indonesia as a whole is the way that it is—it is corrupt, it is dynamic, it is Muslim, etc.—but these are not explanations that can explain variation across regencies. There are also estimates of the causal effects of things like direct local elections on policy outputs, but they are designed not to explain outcomes (to tell us “the causes of effects”), but rather to illustrate “the effects of causes,” which can exist even if these effects don’t explain a lot.

As far as I can tell, the only framework out there that is (1) capable of explaining variation and (2) designed to explain a lot of the variation in local policymaking is something that I will call the “Shitty Politicians Theory of Indonesian Politics.” That is, good policies are implemented because there are good politicians making the decisions to implement them. Bad policies are implemented because of, well, bad politicians. And what explains bad politicians? Bad regencies.

Now it turns out that I have made this very argument myself, in print, and not that long ago. Of course, we used the phrase “the endogenous deterioration of local governance institutions [that] undermine[s] the supposed development-enhancing promises of decentralized government,” rather than the more colorful equivalent of “shitty regencies elect shitty politicians who implement shitty policies that make the regencies even shittier.”

Despite my belief that this is in general a useful way to think about local politics in the broadest sense, as a research agenda is deeply unsatisfying. Let me be clear, this is not only a theory of Shitty Politicians and Indonesian Politics, but also Politicians Theory of Indonesian Politics which is shitty. In this framework, basic problems of conceptualization and measurement of the quality of politicians, the quality of policy outputs, and the concrete historical/social/economic fundamentals that drive the selection of the good or bad politicians are largely swept under the rug. What’s more, there’s no room for agency or human action here: no real room for a Jokowi without torturing the theory to death.

The scholar who can either fix the Shitty Politicians Theory, or who can propose an alternative with real explanatory power for making sense of the diverse experiences of many different locations across the archipelago, will have made a major contribution to both Indonesian studies and comparative politics.

Comments 6

  1. Evan Laksmana December 3, 2012

    How about drawing from path dependence and institutionalism and examine how “the strength of political party and state penetration during Suharto” prior to direct local elections and how that interact with level of local resources?

  2. Tom December 4, 2012

    Certainly could be a possibility. My prediction would be low penetration * high natural resources would be the worst combination.

  3. Evan Laksmana December 4, 2012

    i wonder if we have enough data though at the kabupaten rather than provincial level to look at cross-regional variation, esp on party and state penetration. but this is an interesting future project, maybe?

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  5. angela January 13, 2013

    I dont know that much about political theory or theorist but does the level of public awareness and education level plays a significant part in determining regional political setting? E.g: average voters in regional vote merely based on their religious/race/ethnicity/political affiliation rather than whether the candidate is able to do the job or their proposed program. Unlike in DKI Jakarta with more middle class or higher education voters that could determine their vote based on more objective reasoning? Am I making any sense 🙂

  6. Benyamin Darwis March 14, 2013

    Ryans Tans piece ( on local politics I think wins the award for going one step closer to getting a theory that has explantory power to explain the divergent outcomes of different regions. His piece on North Sumatran politics shifts the unit of analysis away for mthe strongmen and Bupati’s to focus on the coalitions they draw their power from (local political mafia/ party machines/ mobilising coalitions). The paper is definitely worth a read.. I cant wait to see what else he produces

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