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Established Interests in Changing Environments? The Role of Political-Economic Elites in Southeast Asia

This project application is part of a larger combined funding effort. The core objective in this project group, which is funded by an SSC innovation scheme, is to prepare a DFG research grant application in 2016. 

The unifying theme in this envisaged project is the observation that many Southeast and East Asian countries are rapidly transforming their economies and political systems. At the same time, many
old-regime elites have weathered the tides of change by donning new democratic guises. This begs the question to what extent political economies remain in the firm grip of the ‘status quo’ establishment elites and to what extent they are shaped by newly emerging power constellations; and relatedly, to what extent new and old elite forces shape contemporary policy in Asia.

To be sure, the resulting power struggle of these different elite groups give way to new power constellations that have considerable effects on political and economic trajectories, in particular the speed and depth of economic progress and institutional change, notably democratization. As institutions matter decisively for long-run economic success (see for example Gourevitch 1986, North 1990, Weingast 1995, Acemoglu et al 2001, Acemoglu and Robinson 2012), it is crucial to understand how institutional transformation is brought about, how it is shaped, and to what extent it affects the process of socio-economic developments.

Thus far, the traditional political-economic approach has been to look for exogenous variations in institutions in order to clearly identify effects of institutional quality. Existing studies have focused on colonialization (and war interludes) as driving factors for long-run economic and societal change, which - true as it may be - helps little to explain current institutional change and provides little insight into the effects that non-disruptive, relatively non-violent institutional change has on the polity, the economy, and the society. In the present time, these sorts of changes are by far more frequent than revolutions, coups, colonial interventions, or other violent confrontations. Asia as one of the world's most dynamic regions offers a valuable vantage point from which these political transformations can be examined:

Indonesia, for instance, elected a president, who is not part of the Suharto-era political establishment and stands out for his reformist image; yet there are still many members of the former elite that are well-positioned in the national and local parliament, bureaucracy, and party system.

China still adheres to the one party system, and while new economic elites have increasingly entered the playing field, it is still questionable whether this process is gradually altering the existing power balance.

The Philippines under Acquino have moved towards greater political freedom; yet the political system is still characterized by political dynasties and the capture of the political system by ruling elites at the local level.

Thailand is witnessing a lasting conflict between established urban elites in Bangkok and newly empowered rural-based groups in the North - a political stalemate that has inflicted severe setbacks for the economy.

Moreover, Myanmar has seen a period of political opening, but the willingness of the military junta to genuinely devolve power to democratic representatives and return to the barracks is yet to be demonstrated.

We set out to analyze changing elite constellations at different levels - national, international and subnational - and in selected countries, notably Indonesia, China, and the Philippines. While these three countries will stand at the center of our political economy analyses, we will draw on transitional experiences in other countries as well. We are planning to apply for funds for the subprojects as outlined below; but it is clear that at a later stage such a research agenda would be open for researchers focusing on other Asian countries or with different methodological approaches.

Methodologically, the envisioned studies apply a mixed methods approach, which combines qualitative and quantitative modes of inquiry. The aim here is to complement respective virtues of analytical depth (e.g. through means of socio-historical process tracing and in-depth case study research) and analytical rigor (e.g. through means of replication and large-n estimation) and, in doing so, shed new empirical light on the critical issues at hand.

Project Description (Indonesia)
The effects of elite constellations on (sub)national performance in Indonesia

Principal investigators:  Schulze/von Lübke

We seek to determine to what extent old elites have been replaced or effectively challenged by emerging new elites in the course of decentralization and democratization at the local level in Indonesia. In a first step, our analysis will identify the structures and changes of prevailing elite groups on different levels of the Indonesian polity (national, provincial, district-level). We seek to determine to what extent old elites have been replaced or effectively challenged by newly emerging elites.

In a consecutive step, we develop hypotheses as to how certain elite characteristics/constellations affect socio-economic development. One possible angle to this analysis is an assessment of subnational elite settings and their impact on local growth, poverty alleviation, governance, and public service delivery. Overall, we seek to understand how (incomplete) transformations towards a more open political system can alter performance levels in various dimensions.

Moreover, we intend to pinpoint the key factors of institutional inertia or decline. Based on a mixed application of selected case studies and cross-sectional estimations, this study will reassess the virtues of democratic decentralization in conceptually and empirically novel ways. Indonesia is particularly suited for such an analysis of institutional transformation and elite dynamics not only because it offers a vast variety of subnational jurisdictions (which differ distinctly in their responses to institutional change and in socio-economic conditions), but also because its rapid and far-reaching political transformations have created (empirically interesting) variations of elite powers and interests. Due to these large within-country variations, Indonesia offers a unique social science laboratory and valuable insights for the study of institutional transformation.

Externe Projektbearbeiter*innen:
Prof. Günter Schulze (International Economics, Universität Freiburg)
2017 - 2020