[Analytics] Indonesia’s democracy under challenge

Indonesian President Joko Widodo smiles at reporters as he arrives before delivering a speech ahead of Independence Day, at the parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 16, 2019. Reuters. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

At a time when electoral democracy has retreated in the region, Indonesia successfully held one of the world’s largest and generally considered free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s victory in the 2019 election was initially received with enthusiasm by supporters of religious tolerance. Jokowi ran on a more pluralist platform compared to his rival, former general Prabowo Subianto. But democracy does not simply end with the act of voting. When policies are regularly at odds with public opinion, democracy is facing challenges. Deasy Simandjuntak specially for the East Asia Forum.

Foreign observers have been quick to conclude from Jokowi’s policies that the new government is undergoing an ‘authoritarian turn’. The appointment of a party politician as attorney-general, ‘criminalisation’ of opposition politicians and banning of the Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia were particularly controversial actions. Although dubbing a freely and fairly elected government ‘authoritarian’ is problematic theoretically — especially because Indonesia was under a real authoritarian regime under former president Suharto — several episodes in 2019 have illustrated some serious challenges to Indonesia’s democracy.

Although considered free and fair, the presidential election was the most divisive in Indonesia’s electoral history. Prabowo’s camp — consisting of various factions, from former military figures to disgruntled former bureaucrats — was largely fronted by Islamist groups. To avoid being considered less Islamic, Jokowi nominated Ma’ruf Amin, a former leader of the largest moderate Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, as his running mate. The eight-month long campaign period was devoid of any substantial debate on governance issues as voters were mainly split along religious lines.

In the aftermath of the election, Jokowi surprisingly appointed Prabowo as the new minister of defence. Critics consider this a backtracking on Reformasi’s principle of civilian control over the military. Prabowo is known to support a strong state and the government allocates defence the largest budget among all ministries. Observers are also wary of the possible return of the military’s notorious ‘dual function’. As the bedrock of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, the dual function allowed for the greater participation of active military personnel in the civil service. This concern is heightened by Jokowi’s accommodation of many military retirees in his government.

Similarly, Jokowi treated some ministerial positions as currency in transactional politics, with cadres of supporting parties and ‘volunteer’ groups appointed ministers or vice-ministers. Many of the latter positions were created to accommodate these individuals. The large cabinet is also contrary to the President’s stated intention to trim Indonesia’s bureaucracy.

Reforms to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) further illustrate a backtracking of good governance. In late 2019, Jokowi supported a new law that seriously compromised the body’s independence by introducing a supervisory board and placing the anti-graft agency under the government.

Jokowi then handpicked members of the Supervisory Board as well as new KPK commissioners and drafted a regulation that makes the latter responsible to the president. In an October 2019 poll, 71 per cent of respondents indicated that they believe the amended KPK law poses a grave challenge to the country’s fight against corruption. Meanwhile, an ongoing case of an alleged bribery involving the Electoral Commission (KPU) and a PDIP politician seems to illustrate how KPK’s reduced independence has held up the anti-graft investigation.

Parliament had also installed an active police chief with a dubious record as the KPK’s new chief, adding to concerns about the agency’s effectiveness — especially because the KPK and the police have a history of conflict.

A proposed legislative amendment to the Penal Code could potentially curb freedom of speech by penalising defamation against the president. These bills and laws triggered massive student protests across the archipelago from September to October 2019. Although Jokowi has postponed the revisions to the Penal Code and other laws, he has not revoked the amended KPK Law.

The most serious democratic rollback is the plan to amend the Constitution. Parliament has been planning changes which will potentially reinstate some authoritarian elements, including indirect presidential elections through the People’s Consultative Assembly — mimicking the practice during the Suharto era. Although the proposal is far from consolidated, the Home Ministry plans to evaluate direct elections for regional leaders, which could pave the way for indirect elections to be reinstated.

Human rights issues also continue to afflict Indonesia. The arrest of Papuan students accused of burning the Indonesian flag in East Java triggered clashes in Papua in August. Papua–central government relations have been contentious since 1969, when the region was incorporated into Indonesia following a UN-supported referendum. Resource extraction policies that do not prioritise Papuans have worsened the unrest. Economic efforts to appease the local population, such as making Papua provinces ‘special regions’ and sending extra development funds, have not been effective.

Meanwhile, Jokowi is focussing on another ambitious project: the relocation of Indonesia’s capital to East Kalimantan by 2024. The government declared that Jakarta is overpopulated and sinking, while the new capital could precipitate the development of the eastern regions. Yet the limited time frame, immense budget, speculative interests and potential environmental and social problems involved in the move raise practical concerns. In a recent survey, 38 per cent of respondents did not support the capital’s relocation.

Constitutional amendment plans, laws that impede democratic freedoms and the politicised bureaucracy will persist under Jokowi. The President is unlikely to revoke the KPK law amendment given his interest in maintaining his sway over Parliament. Politically, the manipulation of religious sentiments will continue to influence elections. In September 2020, Indonesia will hold local elections in 270 regions. Some are being held in heterogeneous regions with histories of communal conflict, such as Tanjung Balai in North Sumatra, Poso in Central Sulawesi and Papua. It is thus likely that identity politics will continue to be used as an electoral strategy in 2020.

Deasy Simandjuntak is Associate Fellow in the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Visiting Associate Fellow in the Centre for Asia Pacific Area Studies at the Academia Sinica, Taipei.

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