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Jokowi’s choice between political cartels and the public interest

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Author: Burhanuddin Muhtadi, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University

Unlike the euphoria that surrounded his first electoral victory in 2014, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s second term is starting on a sombre mood. Public disillusionment — especially among students — stems from Jokowi’s handling of a controversial corruption bill. His second term will likely further erode democratic values as an economic recession looms.

A protester walks near a fire during university students' protest outside the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, 24 September 2019 (Photo: Antara Foto/Sigid Kurniawan/Reuters).

Since his first term, Jokowi has shown greater interest in economic development than democratic reform. The focus is mainly on infrastructure development, human resource development, opening up further investment sectors, and the perennial issue of bureaucratic reform. If his economic ambitions collide with anti-corruption agendas, he tends to prioritise the former. The implications of this narrow understanding of reform could be dire, as democracy and civil rights may be forfeited in the name of political stability and economic development.

The game-changer is the constitutional term limit that prevents Jokowi from running as a presidential candidate again. In his first term, Jokowi still had incentives to demonstrate deference towards the trusted Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), as segments of voters cared about the issue of corruption during the 2019 election. There is now potential for Jokowi’s second term to be more conservative when it comes to maintaining political stability and tolerating dissent.

The entrenched oligarchic forces that have defined Indonesian politics since the New Order era have certainly exploited Jokowi’s indifference towards democratic reform and anti-corruption efforts. These oligarchic groups not only have total control over the political parties but are also part of an elite economic class that controls the material resources steering the course of Indonesian politics. They joined forces in passing revisions to the KPK Law — which contain articles on weakening the KPK — to undermine the anti-corruption agenda. They also tried to pass various other revisions to the law in favour of their narrow interests.

This conservatism was the backdrop to demonstrations in Jakarta and various Indonesian cities several weeks before Jokowi’s inauguration — the biggest protests since the fall of Suharto. They blindsided Jokowi, who only then realised the degree of controversy surrounding the soon-to-be-enacted bills. Sources of discontent include an article on insulting the president that threatens freedom of opinion (which appears in the revised Criminal Code), and a treason article that suppresses civil society’s freedom of expression.

The draft Land Law is also controversial, in that it allows for the conviction of displaced victims of eviction on the grounds that those who resist eviction in the public interest are interfering with development. The Penal Act is no less controversial, making remission for those convicted of corruption easier. But the People’s Representative Council (DPR) and the government have postponed ratifying the Bill on the Elimination of Sexual Violence that would protect women. There appears to be no ideological difference between coalition and opposition parties regarding these laws.

All this law reform re-awakened the Indonesian student movement that had been dormant since the 1997–98 reform movement. Students and civil society felt a serious threat to the reform agenda that they had fought for, particularly freedom of expression and measures against corruption. The students have attracted the general public’s attention by making the DPR their main target. In the eyes of the public, the DPR is a poor democratic institution, making it easy for students to attract public sympathy.

A national survey conducted in October 2019 by Lembaga Survei Indonesia found that 59.7 per cent of voters knew or followed news about the student protests. The majority supported the student agenda, viewing the revision of the KPK law as an effort by political elites to weaken the agency.

Among the respondents who knew about the revision, 70.9 per cent believed it would weaken the KPK. A huge 76.3 per cent of respondents agreed Jokowi should issue a perppu, or presidential decree, to reverse the changes. But both the governing coalition and the opposition party have warned Jokowi that a perppu could lead to an impeachment process for disrespect towards the parliament as the highest law-making institution.

Jokowi’s second term is likely to be marked by an increasingly intimate relationship with oligarchic powers and political cartels that are adept at utilising Jokowi’s lack of interest in democracy and combating corruption.

The consolidation of oligarchic forces has become increasingly apparent with lobbying for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to amend the 1945 Constitution by reviving the Suharto-era Guidelines of State Policy (GBHN). Doing so might open a Pandora’s box that could include amending the presidential election system that has been a cornerstone of democratic reform. The MPR is currently led by Bambang Soesatyo, who has openly declared his support for containing presidential elections within the MPR as during the Suharto era.

Jokowi’s economic reform agenda will not run smoothly without the political support of the oligarchs and political cartels. But if he tries to ignore the demands of the people, widespread public resistance will disrupt political stability and his economic agenda too. The question will be whether Jokowi listens to the calls of the people or falls into the oligarchic trap.

Burhanuddin Muhtadi is a lecturer in political science at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta, and Executive Director of Indikator Politik Indonesia.

This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Economics and security’, Vol. 11 No. 4.



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