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Party cartelisation, Indonesian-style

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures after delivering a speech in front of parliament members ahead of independence day in Jakarta, Indonesia, 16 August 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta).

In Brief

Democracy and political opposition are supposed to go hand in hand. But opposition did not emerge as automatically as expected after Indonesia democratised in 1998. Instead, Indonesian presidents shared power widely among political parties. The result has been an Indonesian style of party cartelisation that differs significantly from canonical cases of party cartelisation in Europe.


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Yet it exhibits the same troubling outcome for democratic accountability: the stunted development of a clearly identifiable opposition.

Party cartelisation occurs when political parties are willing to share executive power with all other parties regardless of political affiliation. All significant political parties are brought into a ‘party cartel’ — a ruling coalition of political parties that share power despite some having campaigned directly against each other.

Presidential power sharing is a strategic political game. Of particular importance are the rules governing selection of the chief executive — in Indonesia’s case, always a president. If a president is elected by the Parliament, as in Indonesia from 1999–2004, then the president is an agent of the Parliament. The president can be expected to share power, roughly proportionally, with the parties in the Parliament that selected the president.

Since the advent of direct presidential elections in 2004, Indonesian democratic competition has unsurprisingly assumed more of a government-versus-opposition cast. A president elected by the people should theoretically be an agent of the people and therefore face less imperative to share power with those who not only played no role in electing the president but in many cases directly opposed the new president’s candidacy.

There is an implicit assumption that a president will share power with whichever parties helped put the president in power. This can be described as a power-sharing arrangement where presidents only share power with parties that were supportive during the election campaign. Call this arrangement ‘victory’. In this situation, the opposition is easily identifiable as whoever lost the election.

But what if ‘victory’ is not the power-sharing game presidents play? A president might offer to share power with any and all parties that promise to support the new presidency, even if those parties earlier opposed the presidential candidate. Call this other power-sharing arrangement ‘reciprocity’. If a president prefers or is pressured into a ‘reciprocity’ arrangement, identifiable party opposition may vanish — as it did in Indonesia from 1999–2004 — even in a perfectly functional and democratic electoral system.

Party cartelisation in Indonesia rests upon presidential willingness to share executive power with any and all other political parties (‘reciprocity’). Direct presidential elections will only disrupt or dismantle the cartelised party system if presidents build coalitions comprised of supportive parties from the election campaign as well as non-party allies whose election promises roughly align with the president’s (‘victory’).

There are two critical wrinkles in this analysis to consider, however.

The first is that presidents not only make strategic choices about whom to share power with but also about how much power each partner will receive. Presidents can reward existing supporters by handing them a disproportionately large share of cabinet seats while punishing previous opponents by giving them a disproportionately small share.

This means that it matters not only whether presidents share power with parties that opposed them during the election (‘reciprocity’) but also whether presidents hand out a disproportionate number of cabinet seats to certain coalition partners. The more willing Indonesian presidents are to sideline their former opponents, the more they shift from a ‘reciprocity’- to a ‘victory’-style power-sharing arrangement and the better the prospects become for identifiable opposition to emerge and strengthen in Indonesia.

The second caveat is that presidential coalitions do not necessarily reflect the president’s strategic preferences. Although presidents can choose to enter a ‘victory’ arrangement by decree, a ‘reciprocity’ arrangement requires both the president and a given political party to come to an agreement before the latter is brought into the party cartel. Whether a president seeking to share executive influence with political parties regardless of political affiliation can actually find willing coalition partners thus depends on hard political bargaining. Even when a coalitional outcome seems to reflect a desire to drop an unsupportive political party, the president may have just failed to ‘seal the deal’ with active negotiating partners in an ongoing attempt to enter a ‘reciprocity’ arrangement.

Has the shift to direct presidential elections emboldened Indonesia’s presidents since 2004 to pursue ‘victory’ coalitions? Or are the directly elected presidents still trying to form broad and politically disparate political coalitions (‘reciprocity’) and simply failing to strike bargains?

Both former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and current President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo made vigorous efforts to forge alliances across the full range of Indonesian parties. The spectre of full party cartelisation of Indonesia’s 1999–2004 period lingers, more than a decade after direct presidential elections were introduced and the party cartel was first disrupted.

Indonesia’s experience with democratic power sharing suggests that presidents may sometimes see broad coalitions as a source instead of a drain on their power and resources. Oversized coalitions are typically thought of as being more expensive to maintain. But this may not be how presidents see things at all, at least under certain conditions. Oversized coalitions may be a way for presidents to spread the same amount of resources across more claimants, thus ensuring that no single partner can become too strong as a rival.

Party cartelisation has abated in Indonesia, but not vanished. And it could still easily come back in its most extreme form. Even if it does not, the public willingness of all parties to consider such power-sharing alliances means that Indonesia’s voters can never be confident that a vote for one party is a vote against any other.

Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

A version of this article originally appeared here on Presidential Power.

One response to “Party cartelisation, Indonesian-style”

  1. I suspect there are also strong cultural factors at play here. Indonesians being more communalistic in their basic societal organizations, be it at the village or small townships level, tend to prefer inclusive approach towards oppositions and adversaries.

    The same cannot be said of other countries where exterminations and absolute power hoardings are the justifiable and perceived cultural norms.

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