Johannes Nugroho: In Defense of Indonesian Democracy

At a recent political function, President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo made a prognosis that the Indonesian democracy had gone wayward. (Antara Photo/Yudhi Mahatma)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 7:12 PM February 26, 2017
Category : Opinion, Commentary

At a recent political function, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo made a prognosis that the Indonesian democracy had gone wayward. "Is our democracy too free and out of bounds? I say yes: our democracy has spiraled out of bounds," the president told his audience made up of mostly the People's Conscience Party (Hanura) cadres. He argued that the current political climate had abetted excesses or in his words "irregular political articulations" such as liberalism, radicalism, fundamentalism and sectarianism.

While the president may not have written the speech himself, it provided an insight into his political philosophy. More importantly, can the president’s dire verdict be substantiated?

First, the Indonesian experiment with democracy since 1998 has produced direct elections for executive office holders, both national in 2004 and local the following year, without which Jokowi would not have been able to run and be elected as mayor of Surakarta in 2005. Had he never been mayor, it is doubtful he would have captured the nation's imagination and gone on to win the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election and subsequently the 2014 presidential election.

So it is ironic that the president has now turned his back on the system which elected him in the first place. Perhaps the president is right in identifying the Indonesian democracy as wayward but this irregular system, by his reasoning, has evidently birthed an equally "wayward" leader in Jokowi himself. Not born into a political dynasty or hailing from a powerful military family, he was the quintessential unlikely candidate for the country’s top job, and yet he became president.

Jokowi's wayward democracy speech is also a marked departure from his usual style. In contrast to his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has so far refrained from emotionally charged whining about the nation’s state of affairs, preferring understated and often jocular jibes at problems facing his administration or his critics.

Yet his recent remarks were something else altogether: they hinted at his own frustration over the recent populist pressure put on his government over the blasphemy charge against incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahja Purnama who is seeking re-election in what is one of the most contentious gubernatorial election campaigns in recent memory.

Reported to the police for allegedly insulting Islam by his political opponents, Ahok ─ a known ally of the president as well as his former deputy governor ─ became a focal point in politically uniting Islamist groups against the government. Jokowi's own political rivals in the meantime sought to ride upon the populist sentiments to unleash maximum damage by painting him as a supporter of Ahok, hence an enemy of Islam.

In his speech, the president also suggested that the excesses of democracy were in direct opposition to the country's founding principles of Pancasila. Uncannily, his invocation of Pancasila could easily have come from a speech by Indonesia’s former autocrat President Suharto (1967-1998) who notoriously used and manipulated Pancasila to his own political advantage.

Is it possible Jokowi has been feeling nostalgic about Suharto’s New Order Era, during which he after all grew up? No doubt one of the hallmarks of Suharto’s rule was its "stability" and lack of commotion. Its serene façade was borne out of lack of real opposition as it often silenced its critics and other "troublemakers" by any means necessary. Suharto may have said that his regime adhered to the Pancasila democracy but it was really a dictatorship, reliant on himself as the arbiter of laws and favors until he was toppled from power in the 1998 popular protests.

The Suharto nostalgia was one strong theme in Jokowi's political rival Prabowo Subianto’s campaign in the 2014 presidential election, formerly Suharto’s son-in-law and now chairman of the Great Indonesia Party (Gerindra). So it is highly paradox that Jokowi now appears to embrace this allegedly rosier past.

The fact is during the rule of Suharto, the rule of law went missing from Indonesia, and it has never since returned, despite almost two decades of reform. The precepts of the rule of law require a democratically elected government to abide by and apply the nation’s laws without prejudice or favor. In the absence of an autocrat like Suharto, the law ─ along with other checks and balances─ must necessarily be the bedrock of stability.

Yet Indonesia has so far evaded upholding the rule of law. Our application of the law is arbitrary, beholden to the whims, fancies and even religious scruples of government officials or direr still to the power and pecuniary bargaining between law enforcers and their clients. The law also often becomes a tool for the powerful to silence its enemies, and worse, when the law is inconvenient for the government's populist interests, it is often cast aside.

How many times did radical groups like FPI (the Islamic Defenders' Front) transgress against minority groups' constitutional rights with impunity in the past, because local law enforcers refused to take action against them? Would the opportunistic enemies of the president have dared use populist rallies to undermine his authority, had they known the government would only bow to the law and not to populist pressure?

A 2015 provincial regulation, based on a 1998 law, forbids public demonstrations in the vicinity of the State Palace in Jakarta and yet masses of protesters were allowed to converge on the palace during the Aksi Bela Islam (Defense of Islam Action) 411 (Nov. 4) rally. Was this reluctance on the part of the police to uphold the law?

As long as the law is dispensed with arbitrarily, to suit political interests and circumstances, order and stability become tenuous dreams. In the absence of the rule of law, the rule of might takes over. It is now wonder that, without it, Indonesia often behaves like a mobocracy. The only way to save Indonesia's wayward democracy is to uphold the law high, and when others try to hold it down, we hold it even higher still.

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