What characterizes the political context of Jatropha actors in Indonesia?

By Henk Schulte Nordholt

Quote: “Previous research on agrarian change, state-society relations and local politics in Indonesia portrays societal change and policy implementation as product of interactions between influential actors who gain mutual benefits within their networks.”

The answer is: patronage politics. In pre-colonial Indonesia, vertical bonds connecting lords and followers, or patrons and clients, permeated everyday life. In the absence of large centralized states, a multitude of lords provided protection and patronage in exchange for loyalty and labor, and surplus and support during wartime. Control over manpower was a vital index of power and status. Because land was abundant but manpower scarce, labor was highly valued and often tied to power holders through debt bondage. Indebtedness was a key mechanism that made clientelism work. Debt relationships were not only imposed by the powerful but were also actively sought by the less powerful, because it was a form of insurance through which patrons were obliged to offer protection. Patron-client relationships were personal and intimate and therefore often phrased in kinship terms. Clientelism, conceptualized as father-son relations, implied a natural hierarchy which could not be denied or contested. Both patrons and clients needed each other’s support. Patrons were in constant competition with (near) equals, both among the aristocratic elite as well as at the local level, and clients were supposed to defend their patron’s honor. Clients had relatively strong bargaining power because patrons ultimately depended on their loyalty, which could not be institutionally enforced. Avoidance – not showing up, seeking the protection of another lord, or migration – was therefore a powerful “weapon of the weak.”

In the nineteenth century the Dutch gradually built a colonial regime in Java. After they had dismantled the most important royal centers, they spread a thin layer of western institutions over a society that was still dominated by patron-client relationships. A system of indirect rule tied the interests of the Javanese regional elites to the needs of the colonial regime. The Javanese elites were clients of the Dutch, but at the same time powerful patrons within their own domains. As long as they managed to guarantee peace and colonial prosperity the Dutch did not intervene in local affairs, which offered the Javanese elites opportunities to strengthen their regional power.

Under colonial rule clientelism was reproduced, but the conditions as well as the precise relationships between patrons and clients had changed. As their position became stronger the Javanese elites distanced themselves from ordinary peasants. An important intermediary role was played by village elites, who became the principal clients of the regional elites while simultaneously also emerging within their villages as strong local patrons. Both regional and village elites strengthened their positions at the cost of ordinary clients, who became more dependent as their bargaining power weakened. Due to a combination of population growth and the ongoing clearance of uncultivated land, resulting in a gradual immobilization of the village population, there were fewer opportunities for avoidance protests.

Around the turn of the twentieth century large areas outside of Java were incorporated into the Netherlands East Indies. Most of these newly conquered areas were also brought under indirect rule. Regional aristocracies played a key role in redefining old patron-client relationships under the new colonial regime. Protected by the Dutch, members of the old aristocracies became even more powerful in their new roles, in which they were expected to give colonial rule a traditional face. Colonial peace and order rested primarily on a myriad of informal patron-client relationships, which ultimately connected the centers of Dutch rule with Indonesian society.

Revolution and independence created important fault lines, but the rise of the new nation-state obscured underlying continuities. New political parties channeled funds to their own constituencies, which in turn stimulated a process of pillarization in Indonesian politics. This process was reinforced during Guided Democracy (1959-1965), when the national parliament was sidelined by President Sukarno, who then headed a patrimonial system characterized by factionalism and intrigues. Patron-client relationships had survived due to the absence of firm impersonal institutions that guaranteed personal security, while inequalities in society increased because both state institutions and political parties tended to bet on the strong in order to secure support. However, the nature of patron-client relations had changed: relationships tended to become less affective and personal and more instrumental and administrative. At the same time the chains of the patron-client relationship were stretched through party-political lines from the regional setting towards the capital.

Since the middle of the 1970s the rise of the strong, centralized state has become the dominant theme in many writings on Indonesia. However, in practice, the bureaucracy was overstaffed, underpaid and largely incompetent, with overlapping tasks and few responsibilities, whereas patronage distribution was the glue that held the system together. Compared to his predecessor, President Suharto had more money to distribute, which he derived from oil revenues and foreign aid. This enabled him to control various factions among the elite (military, business, bureaucrats) by granting licenses, access to projects, credit and jobs in exchange for loyalty. A pyramid of patron-client relationships ran down from the presidential palace to the villages, while the entire bureaucracy was permeated with officially encouraged corruption. In this context the government party, Golkar, operated as a nationwide patronage network. Bureaucrats operated an informal system of taxation through which they supplemented their modest salaries with the selling of licenses and by levying personalized forms of taxation (1). In a similar vein the military, whose budget was only partly covered by the state budget, gathered their own funding through business activities and by offering security services.

The extended network of patronage relationships was hidden behind a facade of elaborate bureaucratic procedures and a carefully orchestrated public display of order and unity. At the village level, local elites were incorporated in the patronage network of the regime. In exchange for development projects and access to other state resources, village leaders were made into clients of the New Order, while also being enabled in their role as local patrons. Suharto deliberately emphasized his patrimonial role as the “father of development” in a special program called Inpres (Presidential Instruction), which suggested his personal involvement with particular projects.

After the fall of President Suharto, in May 1998, Indonesia experienced a transition from a centralized authoritarian regime to a decentralized electoral democracy, while the strong state seemingly gave way to the emergence of a strong civil society. However, regime change was not accompanied by the breaking up of clientelism because opposition groups were too weak and divided to press for a common reform agenda, and although old patronage networks were partly in ruins, many factions of the old regime managed to survive in the new circumstances.

At the national and the regional level new forms of patronage emerged, headed by unstable alliances of businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians (2). Due to the far-reaching process of decentralization more money flowed to the regions, which competing elite factions tried to control. Direct elections created a patronage democracy in which leaders derived their power mainly from the state and maintained relationships with their constituency through clientelistic practices, while their clients identified themselves mainly in local, and often ethnic, communalist terms. At the regional level we can identify the formation of a political class consisting of those who dominated regional politics and controlled access to the economic and financial resources of the state, which they shared with allies, relatives and clients.

Given the dominant role of patronage in Indonesian politics, any investigation concerning government projects and subsidies, land acquisition, the issuing of licenses, and public-private partnerships – all important aspects of the jatropha story, as illustrated elsewhere in this publication – should take this phenomenon into consideration.


  1. Harold Crouch, Political Reform in Indonesia After Soeharto (ISEAS, Singapore, 2010).
  2. Henk Schulte Nordholt, Decentralization and democracy in Indonesia: Strengthening citizenship or regional elites?, in R. Robison (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian Politics, pp. 229-241 (Routledge, London/New York, 2012).
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