Last year’s forest fires were the worst in 20 years. They will continue to be severe if not for urgent political reform.

Indonesia is widely praised as the most successful electoral democracy in Southeast Asia. It’s lauded as living proof that Islam is compatible with democratic governance and is celebrated for its relative tolerance of religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity. Rightly so.

But its inability to prevent or effectively combat last year’s peat forest fires is a sobering reminder that Indonesia’s democracy has quite a way to go. The disaster is testament to the dysfunction that plagues Indonesia’s consolidation of a new political system after decades of dictatorship.

The radical decentralisation of the Indonesian state has been a defining aspect of the country’s transition to democracy since 1998. Yet as 2015’s fires illustrate, devolution of power to numerous levels of local government prevents the central government from asserting vital authority – particularly in terms of environmental policy and resource management.

Irresponsible and greedy local governments have excessive power. This must be checked in order to prevent future disasters being as devastating.

A ‘crime against humanity’
Now extinguished by the monsoon season, 2015’s forest fires in Indonesia took an unprecedented toll on its environment, economy and global reputation.

The disaster burnt an area twelve times the size of Sydney and 30 times the size of Singapore (more than 20,000 km┬▓), and cost the country more than double what the devastating 2004 tsunami did when it hit Aceh in northern Sumatra, with an estimated $16 billion in losses to Indonesian agriculture, tourism, health, transportation and the environment.

Labelled a ‘crime against humanity’, the fires that raged across Southern Kalimantan in Borneo and Western Sumatra shrouded much of the region in a noxious, apocalyptic-yellow haze.

It choked Indonesians as far east as Papua, as well as the populations of Singapore and Malaysia. More than half a million people in Indonesia were made sick with acute respiratory infection and at their peak, the blazes produced carbon emissions that surpassed those of the entire United States.

Indonesia’s inability and apparent unwillingness to combat the fires was met with incredulity by the global community – not least neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia. How on earth could a democratic state let this happen and handle a crisis so poorly?

The difficulty in extinguishing the blazes was not of lack of political will at the national level. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made personal trips to observe the fires and cut short his trip to the US in order to formulate an urgent response to the crisis. He ordered that local governments declare an emergency if the haze reached “danger level”.

While encouraged by a particularly hot, dry tropical climate produced by El Niño, the root of the forest fires that occur yearly in Indonesia is in poverty, a lack of environmental protection and excessive (corrupt) local power, granted by the political decentralisation that has been the hallmark of Indonesia’s transition to democracy.

A radical devolution as progress?
In its drive to radically democratise after the fall of dictatorship in 1998 it has undergone “political devolution”, whereby its national government has handed power over at the provincial, sub-provincial, municipal and district level.

Under President Suharto’s New Order regime, Indonesia was one of the most highly centralised states on earth. It was patrimonial and clientelistic, thriving on nepotism, corruption and brutally repressing potential opposition.

After Suharto was brought down by student and civil society protests in 1998, Indonesia began an astoundingly rapid and successful transformation into what has become a highly functioning electoral democratic system.

In 1999, the Habibie government enacted Law 22 and Law 25 aimed at decentralising Indonesia’s government. Previous decentralisation law introduced in the 1970s had merely sought to bolster Suharto’s control of society down to the level of kampong (village).

The 1999 legislation provided for radical devolution of political and fiscal responsibility from the central government to locally elected representatives at the district and municipality level. The Indonesian national government is left only with a few key areas of policy: justice, foreign policy, defence and religious affairs.

Decentralisation has to some extent allowed for greater public participation in political processes, challenging dominant political discourses and unshaking the hegemony of traditional elites. It has also better accommodated for Indonesia’s immense linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity.

The rise of Joko Widodo from the mayor of Solo and then Jakarta to the Presidency in 2014 is emblematic of the desired impact of decentralisation — widening the playing field of those who can participate in political life. Unlike many of Indonesia’s traditional political elite Jokowi is from humble beginnings, having attended a working class school and worked in his father’s furniture workshop as a young man.

The creation of little kings
Despite its critical role in helping achieve genuinely representative government in Indonesia, decentralisation has simultaneously seen a rise in corruption among local leaders or bupatis (which translates from Bahasa Indonesia as ‘regent’). Authorities take advantage of fiscal independence and inadequate oversight to abuse their power for personal gain. This is particularly the case in terms of the exploitation of natural resources.

Under Suharto, many resource-rich communities in Kalimantan, Sumatra and elsewhere were left impoverished as the benefits of their local economies flowed back to Jakarta. Decentralisation was initially seen as an opportunity to remedy this problem and mitigated local anger about the central government’s plunder of their regions.

Yet this has rarely happened. By empowering local officials, political devolution has often reinforced traditional elites who are regressive, anti-democratic and corrupt. With their unchecked, despotic rule, bupatis have been referred to by some commentators as ‘little kings’. They feel empowered to ignore national regulations and the courts that enforce them.

For example, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono introduced a moratorium on deforestation in 2010 that was extended to last four years. But noncompliant, corrupt local governments have meant that the problem of illegal logging only became worse over this period.

Many local authorities are close to large palm oil companies who are responsible for the slash-and-burn techniques that create the toxic peat forest fires. Flawed campaign financing legislation for local elections necessitates alternative sources of income and thus encourages corruption.

As the economist Michael Rock has noted, decentralisation has democratised corruption — more actors are able to engage in graft.

Political change as a fire blanket
Human Rights Watch has called for drastic improvements in the governance of Indonesia’s timber industry – particularly in regards to enforcing forestry and anti-corruption laws.

Local officials must be held to account for corrupt conduct. They must be forced to comply with national legislation, with strict penalties for disobedience.

The excessive power held by local bupatis must be brought into check. The health of Indonesia’s democracy, economy, environment, reputation and citizens desperately depends on it.

Max Walden is a Sydney-based researcher who has worked in the education and community sectors in Australia and Indonesia.