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Widodo faces critical test of his resolve

After a series of missteps, he's in danger of losing the respect of millions of followers

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Updated: October 01, 2019 07:33 AM GMT
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Widodo faces critical test of his resolve

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, dressed in a traditional outfit from West Nusa Tenggara, gestures during his state-of-the-nation address at a general assembly at parliament in Jakarta on Aug. 16. (Photo by Andri Nurdriansyah/AFP)

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Indonesia's President Joko Widodo wraps up his first term in office on Oct. 20 and starts his second five-year term. Much has changed since the day in 2014 when he first assumed office. He is in danger of losing the respect of his many millions of followers after a series of missteps.

He has allowed legislators to weaken the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the country's most respected institution; he provoked the wrath of thousands of students when he appeared close to allowing dramatically conservative changes to be made to the Criminal Code; he presides over the military and police some believe are responsible for the death of dozens in Papua.

And, apparently, he has lost touch with the electorate, vlogging his quiet time with his grandson in the grounds of the State Palace in Bogor while Sumatra and Kalimantan burned.

Beset by a wave of student demonstrations over the legal changes in which two have died, Widodo promised to review his approach. Having said he would not stop the new law on the KPK, he promised late last week to rethink his position. The new law creates a supervisory body to oversee the operations of the agency, not least its wiretaps, and there is general concern that it has significantly weakened the institution.

The parliament which forced through those revisions and tried to do the same with other conservative-flavored revisions of other laws, not least the Criminal Code, has now ended its term, removing one important factor in the equation of Indonesian politics.

But another powerful factor — the security apparatus — remains in place, determined to paint the series of demonstrations against the government as misdirected. Wiranto, the veteran former general who now heads the security machinery of the state, claims that the student protests have been infiltrated by other elements.

That is probably the case. Protests in Papua demanding a referendum now appear to have been partly engineered by separatist elements. And back in Jakarta, one likely plotter, Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) politician Permadi, speaks openly of an effort to force Widodo out of power before he is inaugurated for his second term.

Permadi aims to do that through a coalition of the students, the hard-line Muslim movement and other dissidents. The lack of any shared platform between the groups appears not to worry him.

Ranged on the other side of the equation are the military and the police, both unwilling to see any radical shift in political alignment. But with Widodo wavering under pressure as student protests continue, they must be concerned that his resolve is weakening.

Widodo has two choices. Listen to the students and civil society leaders and adopt a more liberal approach to government, in contrast to recent trends toward a more restrained society. Alternatively, he can throw in his lot with his generals and abandon any pretense at being a “nice guy.”

Some Indonesian academics argue that the nice guy theory of politics has masked what is really going on in Indonesia. Robertus Robet, head of sociology at the State University of Jakarta, writes on the Indonesia at Melbourne website that “the major weakness of the ‘good person’ thesis is its failure to explain the decline in democratic quality and the shrinking of space for civil society."

He added: “It also fails to explain why democratic regression is also occurring in a number of other Southeast Asian countries. At a time when there is a clear and distinct reversion to authoritarian rule in many countries around the globe, insisting that ‘good people vote for good people’ is a foolish and shallow political position to take.”

Rafiqa Qurrata A'yun, a law lecturer at the University of Indonesia, and Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, a PhD candidate at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, wrote on the same website that “the destruction of the KPK on Jokowi’s (Widodo's) watch happened because of a widespread and misguided belief that he has the interests of the wong cilik (ordinary folk) at heart and represents new hope for the betterment of Indonesian democracy. This has led many civil society activists to continue to blindly support Jokowi, even when he has displayed authoritarian tendencies, including in this attack on the KPK.”

The Jakarta Post cites Australian National University political scientists Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner as stating that Indonesia meets the requirements for an “electoral democracy” which constitutes “the minimal level in the hierarchy of democratic polities.” But other important features of a full democracy, such as protections for minorities, freedom of speech and freedom of organization, have all eroded over the course of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Widodo presidencies. 

Widodo has a very brief breathing space before a new set of politicians report to the parliamentary complex at Jakarta’s Senayan district. Already, party leaders are complaining at the potential reversal of the revised KPK law. There are concerns that when they get back to work, they could reverse important reforms enacted following the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Among their stated aims is a return to the selection of the president not by the people but by the nation’s highest legislative body, the People’s Consultative Assembly. That scenario fits well with Permadi’s threat to block inauguration for a second term for the incumbent.

Despite his wavering, there is little evidence that Widodo will choose to answer the students’ call for a less authoritarian society. In the past few years, he has preferred to let the police and the Armed Forces adopt tough tactics with critics. A number of laws, including the Law on Defamation and the Information and Electronic Transactions Law — which governs freedom of speech online — are increasingly used to silence the outspoken.

Ignoring the students will, however, condemn Widodo to a legacy of repression. Largely dormant since they played such a huge role in toppling Suharto, the recent protests make it clear that they have not entirely abandoned their role as the conscience of the nation. Widodo, increasingly compared to his autocratic predecessor, may prove to be less of a “good person” than people assume he is.

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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