Indonesia – Democratic Retrograde Ahead of Elections, 2019?

With local elections ahead in July, 2018, and general and the presidential elections slated for April 17, 2019, in Indonesia, a useful question to consider is: how are political conditions in the world’s third largest democracy? Among the reasons for raising the question is President “Jokowi” Widodo’s recent allusions to Indonesia’s assumption of the political leadership mantle for the ASEAN and Southeast Asia countries, if not the larger international community. If the country is to exemplify political progress and development, how well are political conditions operating in the country, particularly ahead of the essential democratic process of open and fair elections? The short answer is: not great. Political progress in Indonesia has suffered a number of set-backs in recent years, most notably with the passing of President Jokowi’s Perppu on mass organizations, the passing of the amendment to the Law on Representative Assemblies, popularly referred to as the MD3 Law, the proposed revisions to the criminal code, and the approval of the 20 percent threshold for the Presidential Election Law, all of which compromise political openness. Add to this list President Jokowi’s endorsement of tough measures against drug trafficking and use – including shooting drug dealers – that puts the country in step with President Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines, and any hand-wringing over Indonesia’s political conditions may be understandable.

President Jokowi’s Perppu 2/2017 on mass organizations was issued on July 12, 2017, to ban groups that did not support Indonesia’s ideology of Pancasila. The Perppu, presidential decree, or regulation in lieu of law in Indonesia, was approved by the House with 314 of 445 votes on October 24, 2017, and seven of the nine parties in the House. While the law has been used to disband extremist hard-line Islamist groups, such as the Hizbut Tahrir, critics point out that it may be used to deny due process to organizations.

Also troubling is the amendment to the Law on Representative Assemblies, popularly referred to as the MD3, that was passed by the House on February 21, 2018. The MD3 allows the legislative body’s ethics council (MKD) to press charges against those critical of the House and its members, including “disrespect” of the House. Article 245 of the law also states that an investigation concerning a member of the House must receive permission from the president and be reviewed by MKD. Critics point out that these regulations will largely restrict the roles of agencies such as the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and silence all criticisms. President Jokowi has announced that he will not sign the law; still, the law goes into effect automatically without his endorsement 30 days after the bill passes the House.

In addition, the House has made revisions of the criminal code one of the national legislative priorities in 2018. The criminal code is based on a penal code under Dutch colonisation in 1918, which was retained following Indonesia’s independence. While change is likely useful given that timing, a significant problem with the revisions lies with the retention of many of the old regulations, so that there is not much improvement. Further, the draft contains problematic provisions, including criminal codes that would take corruption investigation out of the KPK, criminalization of same-sex relations, extramarital sex and adultery, and codes that affect the civil liberties and rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups, and the poor. The draft also contains legislation that makes insulting the president a crime punishable by up to five years in jail. The draft is at the final stages in the House, and is expected to pass before the year ends to avoid running into the election year in 2019.

Minority parties and independents may not wield much impact to counter these political conditions: the House passed the 2017 Elections Law to maintain the presidential nomination threshold, where only parties or coalitions with at least 20 percent of the seats in the legislature or 25 percent of the popular vote based on the outcome of the 2014 legislative elections are able to nominate presidential candidates. The Law was challenged constitutionally, but the Constitutional Court rejected the challenge on January 11, 2018. With the threshold in place, small parties and independents are likely reduced to supporting roles to the larger, broad-based political parties.

These recent laws in Indonesia portend a democratic retrograde in the world’s third largest democracy. President Jokowi’s political rise was founded on his “man-of-the-people” persona that engaged voters across spectrums. Eyes are on how this man-of-the-people will structure the political road to the 2019 elections and beyond.

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