[Indonesia at Melbourne] The limits of regional autonomy: Jember DPRD takes aim at popular district head

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A key achievement of Indonesia’s democratisation was the implementation of regional autonomy. New laws on regional administration (No. 22 of 1999 and No. 32 of 2004) established the direct election of leaders and lawmakers at the local level.

But questions remain about the limits of this autonomy, as local government heads often find themselves in a tug-of-war with regional legislative councils (DPRD), creating major challenges for proactive local governance.

One example can be found in Jember, East Java, where a popular local leader was recently impeached by the local DPRD. Faida, who has served as district head since 2016, was deemed unfit for service by 47 of the 50 DPRD members. They accused her of violating her oath of office and called for her to be investigated for corruption.

But she has managed to keep her job. On 8 December, the Supreme Court finally rejected the Jember DPRD’s decision to impeach Faida, finding that her administration had taken adequate steps to address its mistakes.

The saga began at the end of 2019, when local legislators exercised their right of interpellation (hak interpelasi) to summon Faida to a series of hearings regarding policies and actions they deemed problematic: first, the transfer and appointment of officials in the local bureaucracy without following official procedure; second, Jember’s exclusion from the 2019 civil servant intake tests because of failure to meet the requirements set by the Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform; and third, formulating the local budget without consulting the DPRD.

The tension between Faida and the DPRD worsened when she ignored orders to attend a plenary session in December 2019 to report on these issues. As a result, 44 of 45 DPRD members voted to launch an inquiry into her leadership, investigating whether policies and actions of her administration had violated national law. This process eventually led to her formal impeachment in July 2020.

To understand the relationship between Faida and the local DPRD, it is essential to understand Faida’s unique model of leadership. A medical doctor and director of her own family-run hospital, she was the first woman to be elected district head of Jember. Despite Faida’s lack of experience in politics and the fact she was not a member of any political party, in the 2015 local elections her nomination was backed by the National Democratic Party (NasDem), the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the National Mandate Party (PAN), and the Hanura Party.

In an interview with our research group, Cakra Wikara Indonesia (CWI), Faida said that her professional background greatly influenced her leadership style. She described her principle in leadership as tegak lurus or “upright”, including in her dealings with political parties and other local officials. She said she valued professionalism, transparency, accountability and assertive communication, and her policies have focused on the interests of the people.

This is why her administration has provided scholarships for students from poor families, revitalised health facilities down to the village level, and even introduced a “one-village-one-ambulance” program to increase the reach of emergency care. Faida said that the essence of leadership is to fight on behalf of the people. Her policies are therefore formulated to reflect what she determines to be “the voice of the people”.

Unfortunately, established local politicians have criticised her focus on health and education as ‘trivial’ in comparison to what they consider to be more ‘strategic’ development projects in agriculture and tourism.

She has also come up against vested business interests. In 2018, Faida was able to reverse a decision by the Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources to issue a permit for gold mining in Silo, a subdistrict in Jember, by taking it to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Faida explained her position by saying that the people of Silo adamantly rejected the mining project, and she was obliged to defend their interests.

Faida’s stance against the mining project was part of her commitment to make Jember a human-rights-friendly city. Local activists see her as eager to create an environmentally friendly city and protect the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups such as women, children and disabled persons. In 2019, Jember was selected to host a national human rights festival, partly because of its successes in providing citizens with basic rights, and peacefully resolving conflicts among different groups.

In the local bureaucracy, Faida emphasised principles of transparency, discipline, and efficient time management. In an interview with CWI, a local journalist revealed that Faida had implemented her own “fit and proper test” mechanism for filling positions in the local bureaucracy, even joining interview panels herself to assess candidates.

Her medical background influenced her efforts to “tidy up” bureaucratic governance by making changes carefully, and assigning officials according to their expertise, in strict accordance with the rules. But her approach has not been welcomed by local officials accustomed to widespread bribery to secure promotions, and local politicians who like to “insert” (menitipkan) candidates from their own networks.

Unfortunately, Faida’s lack of experience and allegiances in politics makes it hard for her to ensure her proposed programs and budgets actually become law. While her commitment to implementing principles of transparency and accountability is admirable, the flipside is that she lacks communication skills with parties, which are vital in the policymaking process. The result is that legislation and budget processes stagnate, hindering the distribution of resources to public services and the people.

Indeed, the Law on Local Government (No. 23 of 2014) and its later revision (Law No. 9 of 2015) state that local government heads are responsible for leading local government affairs and formulating policies and budgets in collaboration with the DPRD. The laws also stipulate that local government heads and DPRDs collaborate in an equal partnership for governance, assisted by the local bureaucratic apparatus. Without DPRD support, district heads can find their work very difficult.

But political parties are also at fault. A pragmatic approach to local elections often sees them backing candidates with popularity or financial strength in preference to candidates from their own party membership. They demand loyalty from these unaffiliated candidates when they are elected. A clash of interests can occur when the interests of the parties then differ from the interests of the public. The culmination of this sort of conflict is what Faida’s impeachment by the Jember DPRD earlier this year was all about.

The limits of Indonesia’s local autonomy can be plainly seen in the experience of leaders at the local level who inevitably come under pressure from parties, legislators and other local elite networks. An outsider because of her gender and lack of party membership, Faida is particularly vulnerable.

Her experience illustrates that local leaders need to build broad networks of support to secure an adequate bargaining position with political parties in decision-making processes at the local level, especially when pushing for progressive policies.

Faida’s saga is another example of the urgent need for serious reform in Indonesian political parties and empowerment of women activists and politicians at the local level. Both are essential if Indonesia does not want to see its democratic gains continue to slip away.

*Yolanda Panjaitan and Roni

Source: https://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/the-limits-of-regional-autonomy/

Photo by Zumrotun Solichah for Antara.