Sorcery, Corruption, and the Dangers of Democracy in Indonesia./La Sorcellerie, la Corruption et Les Dangers De la Democratie En Indonesie

By Bubandt, Nils | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Sorcery, Corruption, and the Dangers of Democracy in Indonesia./La Sorcellerie, la Corruption et Les Dangers De la Democratie En Indonesie


Bubandt, Nils, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Let me begin by listing three seemingly disparate observations. The first one is that Indonesia since the initiation of the governmental programme of decentralization in 2001 has experienced what World Bank economists tellingly like to refer to as a political 'Big Bang'. This political rebirth is, according to them, transforming 'the country from one of the most centralized systems in the world into one of the most decentralized' (World Bank 2003: 1). The decentralization laws have been dogged by criticism that they are too vague and have been prepared without democratic participation, that they deliberately delegate all authority to the second-tier districts in order to undercut the influence of the more powerful provinces, and that they increase localism and 'strong-man politics' (Aim, Aten & Bahl 2001; Aspinall & Fealey 2003; Hadiz 2004; McCarthy 2004; Tornquist 2000). The political devolution of power is nevertheless in many ways an apparent success. Some 16,000 service facilities--schools, hospitals, and clinics--have been transferred to the regions, two-thirds of the 3.9 million civil servants in Indonesia are now under regional control, direct election of provincial leaders is in place, and the regions account for 40 per cent of government spending (World Bank 2003: 1). Studies have also suggested that the devolution of political power may have a positive effect on conflict prevention in some regions (ICG 2003). Decentralization appears, in other words, to stand out as a landmark change that promises to overturn thirty-two years of autocratic rule by laying the legal foundations for a more direct and deliberative form of democracy (Booth 1999).

The second observation is that Indonesia continues to hold a position among the ten most corrupt countries in the world, according to the 2003 Corruption Perception Index. (1) Seemingly, then, corruption has not decreased with the implementation of decentralization; rather, financial and political experts see corruption as holding relatively steady despite political democratization and anti-corruption campaigns.

The third observation is my own. It was made during fieldwork in 2002 and 2003 in North Maluku, the first of a series of new provinces to be established after 1999 as part of the process of political devolution. It takes the form of an informal survey of ideas that I conducted among regional politicians and bureaucrats about the incidence of sorcery--a Sorcery Perception Index, if you like. During the course of normal conversation I asked my informants, all well-established bureaucrats and politicians in the urban setting of Ternate, whether they thought that sorcery was decreasing or increasing. Most of the dozen people whom I asked claimed that it was increasing, a claim they backed up by anecdotal evidence. These anecdotes congealed around suspicions about the role of sorcery in the deaths of five local politicians between 2001 and 2003 that I discuss in this paper. Although this spate of alleged sorcery deaths in the local political elite seemed unprecedented, the assertion that sorcery was increasing was not unchallenged. Other politicians, or indeed the same people in their more optimistic moments, would dispute such a rise. The perception of a rise in sorcery is, however, a widespread discursive way of expressing political pessimism. Significantly, moreover, the sense that sorcery is on the increase is often accompanied by a perception that corruption is also on the rise.

This article argues that, far from being disparate, these three observations are intimately related. Tracing the relationship between what, following Marcus (1983: 42), could be called the formal and informal orders of power among the local political elite in North Maluku, I argue that the formal devolution of political power to the regions is accompanied by an informal politics of the occult. Rumours about sorcery and 'corruption talk' are both occult political practices in the dual sense of being hidden and immoral (see Shore & Haller 2005). …

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Sorcery, Corruption, and the Dangers of Democracy in Indonesia./La Sorcellerie, la Corruption et Les Dangers De la Democratie En Indonesie
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