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Indonesia's politicians rush to turn back clock

Revision of anti-graft body law and stalling of bill on sexual violence reflect society's shift toward conservatism

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Published: September 20, 2019 05:09 AM GMT

Updated: September 20, 2019 09:41 AM GMT

Indonesia's politicians rush to turn back clock

An Indonesian artist paints a protest board during a demonstration against the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) law revision in Banda Aceh on Sept. 17. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)

While Indonesia is often praised for the quality of its democracy, that does not mean that it is intent on becoming a liberal nation. Far from it: in revisions to laws over the past week, the country’s parliament increasingly mirrors the conservative direction the populace has been taking.

Parliamentarians also appear to believe that the public has no need to know about the deals they have made, apparently for fear that raucous groups of protesters from civil society will disturb the peace. A committee appointed by the parliament sealed a deal with the government on changes to the Criminal Code in meetings that were closed to the public.

Meanwhile legislation backed by activists, such as a bill on the eradication of sexual violence, hasn’t yet made it onto the agenda of the House, whose five-year term ends on Sept. 27, with a new crop of legislators to be sworn in on Oct. 1. While legislation has been passed that will allow current legislation to be carried over to the new parliament, there’s no guarantee its members will be any more enthusiastic about a draft law that questions the rights of men in a patriarchal society.

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For its part, civil society appears to be running out of steam to protest the reversion to a more conservative perspective on life. That was apparent last week when only small groups of protesters met the passage of revisions to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), raising fears that the country’s most trusted institution is being emasculated.

The House of Representatives had already set the tone for the backward step by choosing a new set of leaders for the KPK, picking a two-star police general, South Sumatra police chief Insp. Gen. Firli Bahuri, as its new head. Bahuri became the KPK's law enforcement chief in April last year but was then sent back to the police on June 20, under investigation from the KPK’s internal supervisory directorate over alleged misconduct.

The parliament’s Commission III, which picked the new leadership, chose Bahuri from nine other candidates, all of them from the Attorney General’s Office or the National Police. In revising the law on the agency, lawmakers demanded the creation of a supervisory body. Its permission will be needed, for instance, if investigators want to use wiretaps, the most effective of their weapons.

The supervisory body will be chosen by the president, and not the members of the House, as they had originally intended. But with President Joko Widodo seen as increasingly uninterested in liberal protections, critics remain dissatisfied the agency will be able to work untrammeled.

While some lawmakers say they are serious about passing the bill on the eradication of sexual violence, Muslim factions are bitterly opposed to it. It aims to prevent sexual violence including rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery and sexual torture in the household, workplace and in public. However, it doesn’t state that sexual relations should only occur within a marriage, and it is therefore seen as encouraging any consensual sexual activity, including homosexuality, which is not currently illegal.

Sex outside marriage

Personal affairs are also the subject of the Criminal Code. Its final form before it goes to a plenary session of the House before it wraps up its work is the subject of intense discussion. In its latest form, living together outside marriage could earn a six-month jail term while sex outside marriage could see as much as a one-year sentence. That would effectively ban all non-heterosexual sex, critics point out.

Reuters quoted lawmakers as saying that the new form of the code was “a long overdue expression of Indonesian independence and religiosity.” But on Sept. 20, President Widodo called for ratification of the changes to be postponed, arguing that many members of the public were unhappy with many of the new articles. If the parliament still wants to pass the changes, they will become law in 30 days, with or without Widodo’s assent.

The revisions were widely seen as a formal reversal of what had been an increasingly liberal society. With the resignation of former autocrat Suharto in 1998, strict controls on religious preachers were relaxed, allowing hard-line Muslim clerics to increasingly dominate the public space and the airwaves.

Cowed by warnings of fire and brimstone if they didn’t listen to the religious teachers, people reacted by adopting more conservative values. Women today increasingly wear the jilbab, unlike the less conformist style of the Suharto era. Those who have been left high and dry by the tide of conservatism risk increasing discrimination and now legal action. Andreas Harsono, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, predicts there will be more vigilante activity as local busybodies report their neighbors for moral infractions.

Political freedom is also threatened: insulting the president is a new entry into the criminal code, with critics pointing out that the lack of any definition of such an insult will make this a potent weapon to silence them.

The rush to get the revised laws onto the books before the curtain falls on this parliament is a marked departure from previous behavior. The Concerned Citizens for the Indonesian Legislature (Formappi) says that since they were elected in 2014 parliamentarians only managed to produce 15 percent of 189 laws from their own National Legislation Program.

The public’s silent acquiescence with the work of their elected representatives is an unusual turnaround: up until now, the political parties have been the least respected institution in public life. In a poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) involving 1,220 respondents, the anti-corruption agency was the most respected institution, with 84 percent support, while political parties scored lowest, at just 53 percent. The House of Representatives fared slightly better, at 61 percent.

Typically self-serving, lawmakers have increased the number of deputy heads of the peak People’s Consultative Council (MPR) from four to nine, with an increased budget to go with it. They have also been pushing to return to the Sukarno-era system in which the MPR chooses the president, a move that has been vigorously opposed by President Widodo.

Despite the low regard for the political parties, there has been little of the hue and cry that greeted earlier attempts to silence the anti-corruption agency. The politicians themselves have clear motives for wanting to clip the wings of the body: lawmakers, at both national and regional level, have been frequently targeted. Former House Speaker Setya Novanto is currently serving a 15-year sentence for graft.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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