These two books offer deep insights into political life in Southeast Asia and fresh contributions to the age-old debate over whether true democracy, uncompromised by money and entrenched power, is ever possible. Aspinall and Berenschot dig into the vote-buying processes that have emerged in Indonesia since its transition to democracy in 1998. In older democracies, political parties are institutionalized and have tight control over state resources. But the parties in Indonesia are weak, and politicians can’t rely on the party apparatus; instead, they must mobilize support through informal, freelance “success teams” that are set up by local brokers just for the duration of the campaign. Civil servants often get involved, either as candidates or as brokers, profiting off their social networks and social standing. Successful candidates recoup their expenses using government resources. This system helps incumbents remain in power and opens the way for mining and palm oil interests to collude with officials. Reformist politicians can buck the system in districts where the economy is more diversified. But in most of the country, the system has proved difficult to dislodge.
Rodan takes a critical look at attempts to strengthen public participation in government in Southeast Asia’s hybrid regimes, which are neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian. Singapore added “nominated members of parliament” to its legislature to represent various professional and social sectors and created an outreach unit to get public feedback on government programs. The Philippines tried to weaken the grip of political bosses by filling 20 percent of the seats in Congress with candidates put forward on national lists by registered parties and groups (weakening the tremendous influence of local patronage) and attempted to lift more people out of poverty by introducing municipal-level participatory budgeting. Malaysia set up several consultation mechanisms for parties, interest groups, and experts to advise the government on economic policy. But Rodan’s detailed examination shows that these innovations didn’t always have democratic outcomes. Party bosses and oligarchs used them to fend off popular discontent with increasing economic inequality.