Friends of Indonesia Should Be Wary of the Government’s Slow Erosion of Democratic Norms

By Geoffrey Hartman —

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia. Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo — commonly known as “Jokowi” — in early August addressed criticism that his government is taking an authoritarian turn with a joke, asking the crowd at speeches in East Jakarta and Solo: “Do I have the face of a dictator?” The joke reportedly went over well for the humble Indonesian president and effectively undercut some of his more hyperbolic critics. It also sidestepped some legitimate concerns about his administration’s recent actions and a broader erosion of democratic norms in Jokowi’s Indonesia.

The cause of the current criticism is a regulation Jokowi signed on July 10 that amended a 2013 law on social organizations to give the minister of Justice and Human Rights the unilateral authority to ban organizations that oppose the official state ideology. The regulation — which will either be made permanent or rejected by the Indonesian legislature within the next three months — has been criticized by rights groups as an attack on freedom of association that puts every nongovernment and civil society organization in Indonesia under threat of dissolution by the government.

The first — and so far only — organization to be banned under the new regulation was Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local branch of an international Islamist organization active in around 45 countries, including the United States. HTI had operated openly in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto in 1998 and was officially recognized as a civil organization in 2006. The group’s support for an Islamic caliphate provided the justification for its banning on July 19, making it the first Islamic organization to be banned in Indonesia’s current democratic era.

Despite government claims that HTI was banned for national security reasons, the move was likely intended to send a message to other Islamist organizations who had joined HTI in the campaign against former Jakarta governor and Jokowi ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, now serving a two-year sentence for blasphemy. Ironically, HTI’s history of nonviolent political action probably made it a more attractive target than more infamous groups involved in the campaign against Purnama, such as the vigilante Islamic Defenders Front.

Jokowi’s ban of HTI has sparked criticism that he is anti-Islam, but it is more likely another data point demonstrating the pragmatic president’s willingness to ignore the niceties of democratic norms when he sees an opportunity for political gain. Jokowi, once derided for being weak, has shown a growing political ruthlessness during his nearly three years in office. This evolution was probably necessary for a neophyte president — only a couple of years removed from being a local mayor — to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of Jakarta politics, but the transition has been jarring given Jokowi’s reputation as a reform-minded outsider.

After a disastrous first year in office, Jokowi managed to gain majority support in the Indonesian legislature and get his administration back on track, but at the cost of resurrecting a Suharto-era executive power and intervening directly in the internal politics of two opposition parties. Jokowi’s use of the minister of Justice and Human Rights’ latent authority to grant legal recognition to a faction of a political party coerced the Golkar party and the PPP (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, United Development Party) into leaving the opposition coalition and supporting his government, and allowed the president to ensure his preferred choice, Setya Novanto, became Golkar chairman.

Novanto — also the speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives — is now a key player in a legislative inquiry into the respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The inquiry is viewed as an attempt to weaken the commission, spurred by a KPK investigation into a corruption scandal that has embroiled Novanto—who was officially named a suspect by the KPK on July 17—and Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly. Jokowi has been criticized for not coming out strongly in support of the KPK, but his reticence is hardly surprising when some of his key political allies are leading the inquiry, with support from all but one of the parties in his coalition.

Jokowi has also been happy to engage in strongman posturing reminiscent of his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, most recently by instructing police to shoot suspected drug dealers who resist arrest. Jokowi has made the execution of foreign drug traffickers a signature of his administration’s “shock therapy” approach to fighting drugs, in part to convey an image of strength and boost his popularity.

Despite the growing list of democratic norms violations, critics who accuse the Jokowi administration of authoritarianism are engaging in unhelpful hyperbole. Indonesia’s democracy, as imperfect as it is, remains the standard bearer in a region where democracy is far from the norm. The Jokowi administration’s deviations from democratic best practices seem minor in comparison to the military government in Thailand or the human tragedy that is the Duterte administration in the Philippines. Indonesia’s status as regional role model remains intact. Still, that status also makes the erosion of democratic norms there of outsized importance. If Indonesia won’t champion democratic norms, who in Southeast Asia will?

There is reason to worry about further democratic backsliding in Indonesia as the next general election in April 2019 approaches. The Jakarta gubernatorial election earlier this year demonstrated the willingness of Jokowi’s rivals to exploit volatile social and religious tensions for political purposes. Jokowi has proved over the past few years that he is not opposed to playing political hardball himself, and the temptation to break a few more rules to ensure reelection may be hard to resist, especially if the opponent seems like a greater threat to Indonesian democracy.

The potential for a truly authoritarian leader to triumph in the 2019 elections is a real concern and could be used to justify further erosion of democratic norms in Indonesia to prevent an even worse outcome: After all, what is the point of scrupulously playing by the rules if it leads to defeat by someone who will throw out the rules anyway? This logic, as dangerous as it is for the strength of Indonesian democracy, is hard to argue against. Friends of Indonesia who want to see the country remain a democratic role model for the region should keep a close eye on events over the next two years and remain wary of the creeping threat of well-meaning political expediency.

Mr. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. This post originally appeared in the August 10, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.

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