Bad Debt: The Politics of Financial Reform in Indonesia
Bad Debt: The Politics of Financial Reform in Indonesia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Report 15 / Asia

Bad Debt: The Politics of Financial Reform in Indonesia

Indonesia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy is taking place amidst widespread poverty, unemployment and social dislocation which fosters political instability.

Executive Summary

Indonesia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy is taking place amidst widespread poverty, unemployment and social dislocation which fosters political instability. There is a pressing need for robust and sustained economic growth to reduce these problems, ease the strain on the state budget and smooth the political transition.  The country’s financial difficulties threaten to hinder this growth, with a serious potential knock-on effect to large-scale violence.

This report examines the measures agreed by Indonesia and its external lenders to reduce the public debt that is central to and symptomatic of those financial difficulties.  It attempts to explain in political and institutional terms why the implementation of these measures has often run into difficulty and suggests ways in which the process might be made more effective and transparent.[fn]This report is based on interviews and conversations with more than 40 serving and former officials of the Indonesian government, government advisers, legislators, foreign economic officials and diplomats, private-sector bankers, lawyers, accountants and anti-corruption activists. In many cases, these people spoke on condition that they not be identified in any form. In other cases, the name of the interviewee is identified in the footnotes to the report, as are media sources.Hide Footnote

The financial crisis that triggered the fall of the Soeharto regime in mid-1998[fn]Indonesia’s GDP fell nearly 14 per cent in 1998, was flat in 1999 and rose 4.8 per cent in 2000. Source: press reports.Hide Footnote  left the country with huge public debts, equal in size to its gross domestic product. This debt, totalling about U.S.$ 154 billion, exacts a major human cost by absorbing funds that could be used to foster growth and alleviate mass poverty[fn]The government estimates that 24 per cent of Indonesians lived in expenditure poverty in 1999, meaning they could not afford a pre-defined basket of daily goods, compared to 18 per cent in 1996. Different statistical assumptions produce a figure of 27 per cent for 1999. Source: “Poverty Reduction in Indonesia: Constructing a New Strategy”; World Bank, 2000.Hide Footnote . Some economists fear that it could eventually prove unsustainable, forcing the government into a politically damaging default.

Indonesia and its creditors, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have agreed on a number of policy measures for reducing the public debt to more manageable levels. Through a series of Letters of Intent since October 1997, Indonesia and the IMF have agreed on renegotiating debt repayment schedules, cutting subsidies, increasing tax revenues, selling government-owned commercial assets, and restructuring private debt to the state. Indonesia has also committed itself to structural reforms of its legal and banking systems in order to sustain economic recovery, bring back the private investment that has largely forsaken the country, and reduce the risk of another financial crisis. But despite the consensus between Indonesia and the IMF on what needs to be done and significant progress in some areas, the domestic implementation of certain key elements of this financial reform agenda has not been pursued with the necessary consistency or commitment.  

The IMF’s frustration with the slow progress of financial reform has led it to suspend its loans to Indonesia four times since 1997. IMF loans were being withheld as this report was written.  The World Bank warns that further policy slippage could contribute to a “crisis scenario” which would cause it to cease new lending. While there are signs that agreement could be close on some of Indonesia’s current differences with the IMF, the experience of the last three years suggests that tensions could rapidly re-emerge.

The slow and halting progress of financial reform can be partly blamed on the difficulties that any government would face in the midst of a wrenching political transition and on the arguably over-optimistic expectations of external lenders like the IMF.  Reform has also been distorted, however, by the fragmentation of Indonesian politics since Soeharto’s fall, a malfunctioning legal system and a political culture in which patronage and corruption play a key role. The problem is not a shortage of policy options, but the government’s inability or unwillingness to implement fully a policy agenda that it has already agreed with its external creditors.

For implementation to move forward, there will have to be progress on a range of wider issues, including the reduction of corruption in politics and the legal system; greater cohesion within the government and a less adversarial relationship between the government and parliament. Indonesia’s external lenders can have little direct influence over these issues, and it is probably not realistic, at a time when Indonesia’s government is under heavy political attack from domestic opponents, to expect rapid progress on the financial reform agenda. Nonetheless, even incremental progress on implementing the fundamental reform measures agreed between Indonesia and its external lenders, which are discussed in detail in this report, is better than none at all.

Jakarta/Brussels 13 March 2001

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