Adaptation and Continuities in Clientelism in a Fishing Community in Takalar, South Sulawesi.


Clientelism is a feature of electoral politics in many parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia where over the last decade scholars have observed the growing centrality of clientelistic exchange at all levels of electoral competition. (1) In the expanding literature on the topic, scholars have tried to identify, categorize and understand the varying forms of patronage distributed in Southeast Asian and Indonesian elections, the nature of the networks used for distribution, their impacts on electoral outcomes and causal factors--institutional, structural and cultural--that account for variation in clientelistic politics. They have also observed variation in clientelistic politics across social settings, especially comparing rural and urban areas. (2) However, this rapidly expanding literature lacks a detailed appraisal of electoral politics in fishing communities in coastal areas.

This topic is of interest because numerous studies--especially those written by anthropologists--have explained how clientelism is deeply embedded in the everyday politics and social life of fishing communities throughout Indonesia. (3) Observers have noted how ordinary fishers, as clients, are often enmeshed in relationships of dependency with patrons--boat owners, traders and other owners of capital--both through production arrangements and social relations. This pattern is found in coastal communities across the archipelago, from east to west. (4) Social relations in coastal communities thus often resemble the traditional forms of clientelism described in classical works on agrarian societies, in which relationships between peasants and landlords are not only highly unequal, but also personalized and iterative, involving longstanding relationships of both exploitation and mutual benefit rather than one-off exchanges. (5)

However, no research on fishing communities in contemporary Indonesia has explored whether such socially embedded clientelism is readily transferred to the political context, especially during elections. Do the resilient forms of traditional clientelism found in fishing communities structure electoral competition? How has the advent of new forms of political competition affected these social relations? What role is played by alternative sources of political authority in such communities during elections?

This article addresses such questions by focusing on an election in a fishing community in the district of Takalar, South Sulawesi. It shows both continuity and change, with traditional clientelistic relationships remaining significant, but also being challenged by new forms. Accordingly, it identifies three forms of voter mobilization. The first is traditional brokerage, in which the powerful economic actors upon whom the fisherfolk depend for their livelihoods play a role in mobilizing votes among their clientele. The second is patrimonial brokerage, in which the key vote brokers are state functionaries. The third, political brokerage, involves free-floating political campaigners organized in candidates' "success teams". (6) I show that although traditional brokerage was an extremely effective tool for the candidate who could most win support from fishing patrons--in this case, the challenger--the complexity of local societies was matched by the complex nature of electoral competition, with candidates depending on multiple social networks and sources of authority to win over voters. Even in such a steeply hierarchical social setting, electoral competition was intense and genuine, while fundamentally structured by that social inequality.

The article presents this argument through several steps. It starts by reviewing the literature on fishing communities in Indonesia, and sketching out the clientelistic relationships that structure people's livelihoods in such communities. Next, the article describes the electoral process and results in the coastal areas of Takalar district, describing also the nature of the local fisheries industry and the social arrangements that sustain it. It explains how local fishers work, and the social inequalities that underpin their activities. The remainder of the article explores electoral mobilization in the 2017 local election, illustrating how the candidates, both incumbent and challenger, tried to make use of various networks, resources and mechanisms for voter mobilization during the campaign. Alongside traditional brokerage drawing on relations of production, campaigners also drew on a wide range of officials and non-official actors, indicating the flexibility of political networks even in this highly unequal and hierarchical society.

Clientelism in Indonesian Fishing Communities

Fishing communities in Indonesia do not change readily. Fishers are dependent on the sea and the seasons, typically are economically deprived and are entangled in class structures and patterns of social relations that resist transformation. (7) Earning a living from the sea is a risky and uncertain endeavour: fishing requires significant capital investment in the form of ships, motors, nets and other equipment, yet the catch is unpredictable. Fishers can make a windfall when their catch is good, but face hard times when the sea is unrewarding, and they experience regular and lengthy unproductive periods when the tides or weather mean they cannot work. These are the conditions that produce dependence on money lenders, boat owners and other wealthy actors, a dependence typically embodied in socially valorized patron-client relationships. Numerous studies have shown that clientelism is a dominant form of social relations in coastal areas throughout Indonesia.

Let us consider some examples, beginning with Sumatra. In Riau, fishers depend on tauke (bosses) who loan them boats, nets and refrigeration equipment, and cash when times are hard. In repayment, the fishers must sell the tauke their catches at discounted prices. According to Samsul Bahri, this dependence is reinforced by the inability of the state to provide meaningful assistance, in the form of easy access to appropriate licences, infrastructure or subsidies which might help break fishers out of this debt trap. (8) In Medan, North Sumatra, businesspeople or creditors (pengijon) who are boat owners or moneylenders likewise develop ongoing clientelistic relationships with fishers, loaning their boats or equipment, or providing them with needed cash, in return for which the fishers promise to sell their catch at advantageous prices determined in advance by the creditor. These relationships ultimately benefit the richer party, but the fishers generally acquiesce because they lack resources to go to sea themselves without assistance, and often build up debts during non-fishing periods, especially if faced by illness or other major life crises. In such circumstances, it is often the fishers who will approach the pengijon for help; the pengijon is typically from a higher social stratum, with higher status and education, and is often able to dispense advice or help the poorer fishers with connections when needed. Such factors contribute to the fishers treating the pengijon with respect and deference. (9) Similar dynamics are found in the Banyak Islands off the west coast of Sumatra. (10)

In Sulawesi too, clientelistic relationships infuse fishing communities. Among the Bajau ethnic group--sometimes known as the sea people--clientelism is expressed in longstanding relationships of debt connecting poor and wealthy fishers. Poor fishers can turn to their wealthier counterparts for loans during difficult financial times and for the capital or equipment they need to go to sea; their creditors are repaid with steady supplies of whatever they catch. As the patron, the wealthy fisher is expected to provide loans when needed, while as the client, the poor fisher must provide his catch to the patron. (11) Similar clientelistic arrangements are found among Bugis migrants in the Lindu Lake region in Central Sulawesi. Here clientelism is maintained not only through economic dependency but also through kinship. Among Bugis communities, lending money is a method used by a creditor to increase his/her number of workers and to guarantee continuing supplies of fish. (12) While family relationships are a critical glue in such arrangements, in the end it is debt that is dominant:

However much the bonds of kinship and, to a lesser degree, the diffuse solidarities of common residential origin and allegiance to pioneering patrons, whether noble or not, has helped to structure the process of migration to Lindu, it is the commercial nexus of labour--its opportunities and demands, its promises and its burdens--that has sustained the settlement and dominance in the harvesting and marketing of fish exercised by the Bugis at Lake Lindu. (13) It would be possible to discuss additional examples, (14) but the core point is clear: in fishing communities throughout Indonesia fishers are dependent for their livelihoods on economic and other assistance from wealthy community members, who are typically boat owners and wholesalers. The ingredients of classic patronclientelism are all present in these communities. The dependence generated by these relationships is rooted in relations of production, in which the weak economic position of the clients reinforces their reliance on wealthy patrons, who are sometimes outsiders, sometimes members of the same communities, even kin. These relationships are personal, intimate and face-to-face, and though the patron is the ultimate beneficiary, his or her connection with the client also involves a form of reciprocity "in which an individual of higher socio-economic status (patron) uses his own influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (client)". (15) In studies of rural societies, it has often been observed that landlord-peasant relationships of this sort form the basis for wider...

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