Does Institutional Activism Strengthen Democracy? A Case Study of Agrarian and Anti-Corruption Movements in Indonesia.


This article explores institutional activism, a phenomenon in which civil society activists try to advance the agenda of their social movements by occupying formal positions within the state bureaucracy and institutions, (1) and its relation to democracy. Its aim is to determine whether institutional activism as a strategy has paved the way for social movements to promote their issues and interests on the Indonesian state's political agenda.

The participation of civil society activists in the state arena is a global trend, especially in the Global South. In Brazil, for instance, feminist activists channelled their advocacy through conventional bureaucratic channels, (2) and advanced their cause within state institutions. (3) In Malaysia, activists have entered the state through electoral politics. (4) Activists have also entered the state through sectoral agendas, such as agrarian reform in the Philippines (5) and the anti-corruption movement in India. (6)

In post-reformasi Indonesia, it is also a common phenomenon for civil society activists to cross over into the state arena. For instance, W. Ichwanuddin has studied how activists in civil society organizations have entered the state by running as legislative candidates. (7) Dirk Tomsa and Charlotte Setijadi have examined the nexus between civil society and the electoral sector. (8) Haryanto has explored the strategies and motivations of civil society activists who enter the state, (9) while Marcus Mietzner has identified three types of pro-democracy activists in Indonesia: politicians who previously participated in civil society activism; reformist activists in political parties; and reformist activists who crossed over into formal politics. (10)

This article takes a step further by exploring whether or not such institutional activists have been able to deepen democracy in terms of advancing participation, representation and equality. In doing so, it focuses on the link between institutional activism and the agenda of deepening democracy. Here, democracy refers to popular control over public affairs. (11) In other words, we seek to determine whether institutional activism can deepen democracy by serving as a mechanism for "the effective translation of citizens' demands into the political process via institutional channels". (12) Institutional activism can thus contribute to the deepening of democracy since it can potentially function as the process through which activists--through their involvement in the state bureaucracy and institutions--can exercise popular control over public affairs. The article thus asks: "How does institutional activism influence democracy?" To answer this question, we examine the strategies of institutional activists in two different movements and their interactions with external activists who remain outside the state.

We explore two cases of institutional activism in post-1998 Indonesia: the first involves the agrarian movement and the second the anti-corruption movement. The selection of the agrarian and anti-corruption movements is based on several considerations. First, civil society actors in these two sectors have long been "boundary-crossers" in penetrating into the state and its institutions. (13) Second, agrarian reform and corruption eradication became important issues for Indonesia after the fall of the New Order regime in 1998. Activists in these two sectors are often discussed in the context of their contributions to progressive politics in democratic Indonesia. (14) Third, these sectors have two distinct loci, with the agrarian reform movement primarily driven by land interests, and the anti-corruption movement rooted in global norms against graft. (15) The latter cause has significant implications for democratization, since the anti-corruption movement often served as a "home" for pro-democracy actors protesting against corruption, collusion and nepotism during the authoritarian New Order regime. Thus, while anti-corruption activists focus on issues of governance, agrarian activists tend to use the issue of land reform to criticize developmentalism.

This article aims to contribute to the recent literature on institutional activism by rejecting the view that the boundaries between the state and civil society are dichotomic and impermeable. Drawing from studies on boundary crossings, (16) it provides a better understanding of institutional activism, especially the relationship between activists who are "political insiders" and those who opt to remain as external challengers.

Following the introduction, the article discusses the concept of institutional activism and the idea of political capacity for popular control. It then examines the two case studies of institutional activists in the agrarian and anti-corruption movements, including the effectiveness of their strategy in advancing their respective causes.

The Interaction of Civil Society and the State: An Overview of Institutional Activism

The relationship between civil society organizations and the state has generally been framed as one involving two distinct entities. (17) However, changing political contexts may fundamentally transform the relationship and interactions between the state and civil society. In Southeast Asia, for instance, there has been "increasing political participation" that is paradoxically accompanied by "the narrowing of the channels for political contestation". (18) Kaniskha Jayasuriya and Garry Rodan conceptualized two different sites of political participation--one sponsored by the state and the other a space created by civil society which is autonomous from the state. Meredith Weiss has, however, criticized this mapping on the grounds that it places the state as the primary agency that determines the inclusion (or exclusion) of civil society within political spaces. According to Weiss, the state-society relations is more interactive than merely determined by the state. (19) Instead, Weiss identified three different sites of participation: an autonomous civil society; an extra electoral state-sponsored civil society; and electoral politics. (20)

The commonality of the two above-mentioned studies is that the state is seen merely as a political structure that determines the degree and form of civil society participation. However, they overlook the potential for political participation within the state to be used as a tool to advance activist causes. Meanwhile, the interaction between civil society and the state has also been analysed under the political linkage framework. For example, Cornelis Lay has examined how civil society organizations in Indonesia play a crucial role in establishing a political linkage with the parliament. (21) However, Lay was only concerned with the political linkage between institutions, and was limited in considering the dynamic of activism within the state.

Relations between civil society and the state are also described in terms of the advocacy coalition framework. Paul A. Sabatiere emphasized the relationship between actors in "policy subsystems", underscoring the importance of examining the interactions between various agents from different institutions who are interested in a particular policy area. (22) However, such an approach tends to focus on the general interaction between actors in the policy arena rather than their engagement of civil society activists and social movements.

In summary, the foregoing studies--invoking the theoretical frameworks of political participation, political linkage and advocacy coalitions--do not adequately address how activists can advance their causes by entering into and operating within the state. Hence, this article aims to contribute to the literature by discussing institutional activism, in which activists formally occupy positions in state institutions as a means to advance their causes. In doing so, the article analyses the relationship between the state and civil society within the framework of social movements.

This article perceives institutional activism as the way civil society actors redraw the boundaries between state and social movements, thus challenging the established dichotomy between insiders and outsiders towards the state. Instead of dichotomizing activists who work inside and outside the state, this article focuses on institutional activists who have access to the state's resources and power. (23) Rebecca Neaera Abers classifies two different types of institutional activism: those with strong ties to social movements; and those who do not have these strong ties but are still interested in the same issues. (24)

Moreover, institutional activism has also been discussed in terms of its impact on policy change, (25) strategies adopted by activists within the state, (26) and in the context of specific issues such as civil and women rights, (27) environmental policy, (28) public health, (29) and agrarian reform. (30) These studies have generally portrayed institutional activism as a positive force for social change. However, there has been limited exploration into how institutional activism can bolster democracy by enhancing popular control over public affairs. To discover the extent to which institutional activism strengthens popular control, this article investigates the political capacity of institutional activists to strengthen popular control.

According to David Beetham, "the greatest conceivable degree of popular control is crucial to ensure collectively binding rules and policies over which the people exercise control". Popular control emerges once individual rights necessary to participate in the collective decision-making process are acknowledged. (31) It means that popular control requires political equality. Yet, David Beetham does not provide a feasible framework for newly-democratized countries which are still struggling with problems of representation emanating from both elitist institution building and fragmented citizen...

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