Western concepts of ‘good governance’ can overlook the significant benefits other models, such as patron-client arrangements, can deliver on the ground, Anggun Susilo and Restu Karlina write.

One of the biggest buzzwords in politics and government studies is governance. In almost every developing country in the world, it has become a prominent term. However, the definition of governance and how it should be used has never been settled. This isn’t helped by the fact that several ideas are associated with governance, including as transparency, accountability, capacity building and clean government.

In Indonesia, international actors have introduced the concept of governance, along with decentralisation and democratisation, aiming for the elimination of the inherited problems of Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme (KKN, or corruption, collusion and nepotism).

Here, ‘inherited’ refers to the acute difficulties stemming from Suharto’s regime. Undoubtedly, corruption, collusion and nepotism remain in place although the country has experienced regime transition from authoritarian to post-‘reformasi’ and democracy. One of the KKN forms that is still found in many areas of Indonesia is patron-client arrangements. There are many definitions of patron-client but, in short, this is about the relation between the powerful and the powerless usually in public elections. The latter serves the former usually in the form of a ‘vote’ while the former gives concessions in return.

Plenty of research shows that patron-client practices are bad for democracy. Thus, governance comes in to prevent them. However, this argument stands in contrast to the case of Blitar municipality where patron-client practices go hand-in-hand with better public service (the very essence of governance).

The last election, held in 2015, was perhaps one of the most remarkable victories for the current Mayor of Blitar. He won 92 per cent of the vote, which was the highest in any Indonesian district election. Despite his resounding victory, people have been discussing his leadership. In addition, he come from a poor family, telling voters “I was very poor and unable to go to school. Therefore, I will do my best for Blitar people so they can go to school and live better.”

His personal experiences motivated him more to serve people better. Accordingly, many of his programs are dedicated to the poor.

The Mayor is a very humble man. His personality makes him accessible to local residents. In our interviews he raised the example of how he personally replies promptly to text messages from residents. People also receive his first-hand assistance at every funeral. On the spot, some money is given to the family as his way of expressing condolence.

Public service in Blitar is also considered to have improved. This is demonstrated by a significant increase in the local budget for two crucial sectors; education and health. The budget for education is about 46 per cent of total expenditure. It is far beyond the national standard, which sits at about 20 per cent as mandated by national law. This budget is dedicated to providing free education from kindergarten up to high school. This also includes free uniforms, school stationery, a pair of shoes and a bike. For local residents who study at university, there is a grant of 1 million rupiah (roughly US $100).

Similar to education, a significant portion of the budget is allocated to the health sector. This is to provide free-of-charge health services in government facilities. There are also additional funds for serious illnesses like cancer. Meanwhile, a claiming mechanism is applied to hospital treatments meaning that people may get the treatment first and claim the cost afterwards. According to information from hospital staff, to get this free-of-charge service, people should present their ‘kartu miskin’ (card for the poor) prior to treatment.

This analysis of Blitar illustrates that the patron-client practice is not only associated with negative governance. Rather, in contrast, it shows the patron-client practice can go hand-in- hand with better public services. The Blitar example also shows how the local context largely influences externally conceived agendas like governance.

Anggun Susilo and Restu Karlina are senior lecturers at University of Brawijaya, Indonesia. Government and politics are two majors that both authors are interested in. Apart from lecturing, Anggun and Restu are actively engaged with capacity building activities.