Jokowi sidelines democracy?

Earlier this month, the well-known Journal of Democracy published an article titled “Indonesia: Jokowi Sidelines Democracy”. Just reading from the title alone one can conclude the verdict put out by the authors: Jokowi has intentionally caused the decline of Indonesia’s democracy.

According to the article, during his seven-year tenure as president, Jokowi has prioritized economic development at the cost of democracy. He is “deliberately reducing civil-liberty safeguards and democratic checks and balances” and “reducing electoral safeguards”.

While providing much proof, it is neither appealing nor convincing. While not all the arguments are wrong, the majority of them are borderline weak and lame. Instead the authors’ overall analysis is not as conclusive as the verdict of the title.

The first concern raised by the article is the free and fair quality of the upcoming 2024 elections. There will be simultaneous presidential and legislative elections along with the regional elections in the same year, thus the General Elections Commission (KPU) will have an even more difficult task in 2024 than in 2019. By refusing to revise this simultaneous plan, Jokowi is said to have jeopardized electoral safeguards and thus democracy.

While there were concerns mainly about the death of poll workers, the free and fair quality of the 2019 elections was maintained, as the authors concede. There is a possibility that in 2024 those qualities might be at risk, but that is highly hypothetical and uncertain.

Taking a step back, the fundamental aim of making the elections simultaneous is to improve the quality of governance at every level by making them more in-sync with each other. Better quality of governance will certainly strengthen democracy. There is nothing undemocratic if any president is willing to take some risks to achieve such an important aim.

Related to electoral democracy, Jokowi’s refusal to change the existing election law will require the central government to appoint hundreds of acting regional heads for the transitional period in 2022 and 2023. This is deemed undemocratic since local leaders should have popular mandates.

This is an absurd argument. Keep in mind that, while free and fair elections are a prerequisite for any democracy, there is no definite formula at which level government officials must be elected and/or appointed. The transitional period is just a consequence of the agenda to make elections in Indonesia gradually simultaneous, and in 2024 all regional leaders will have a popular mandate for certain.

Utilizing the Freedom House Index, the article rightly claims that Indonesia’s freedom score has consistently declined throughout Jokowi’s tenure. However, claiming that public assessment of civil liberties is also in decline under Jokowi is imprecise. The article itself presents data from 2009 to 2019, during which all indicators of mass assessment of civil liberties showed negative trends. From 2019 to 2021, however, the reverse is true, with those indicators showing positive trends. It is confusing and unclear why the authors have failed to note these latest positive trends.

The authors of the article consider Jokowi’s actions against certain groups as harsh and threatening civil liberties. There are at least two main indicators used to show the decline of civil liberties in Jokowi’s tenure. First is the issuance of a regulation in lieu of law that states explicitly that all mass organizations should be in line with Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution, and accept the idea of “the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia”.

The most notable outcomes were the banning of the Hizbut Tahrir and the Islam Defender Front (FPI). It is unclear why having such a regulation is considered undemocratic.

Regulations on mass organizations should only be deemed problematic when they are unreasonably restrictive. Requiring mass organizations in Indonesia to follow the foundations of the nation is not one such case. Keep in mind that banning mass organizations also occurred in other mature democracies.

Second is the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law, which has been utilized more frequently during Jokowi’s presidency than that of others to quench dissent. It was passed in 2008, six years before Jokowi took office, and Jokowi’s administration should be credited for being assertive toward hate speech that undermines democracy.

It is true that there have been many cases in which such assertiveness has gone too far and has been used to weaken opposition and critics. However, whether this is a temporary extreme reaction to worsening polarization that will find a more moderate equilibrium or a premeditated and calculated attempt to undermine democracy is still unclear and requires more time to evaluate.

The declining number of opposition parties has also been noted as another indication of Jokowi’s move away from democracy. Opposition is required for checks and balances, and minimal opposition means minimal checks and balances, the argument goes.

Unlike three of his predecessors, Jokowi is not the head of a political party. It is also a public secret that his relationship with his own party is not always harmonious. And it is not uncommon for parties within Jokowi’s coalition to openly defect and criticize the administration.

Under such circumstances it is logical that Jokowi attempted (successfully) to create a massive coalition in order to establish a safeguard against defection and challenges within his own coalition, which is far from undemocratic. It would be undemocratic if Jokowi weakened his opposition by unconstitutional, illegal and violent means.

The bid by Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko to “take over” the Democratic Party can be considered as such. Had Jokowi supported the attempt, as accused by some, it would not have failed so badly. Later, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD testified publicly that Jokowi prohibited ministers from backing Moeldoko, as it should be in a democracy.

The new Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law passed during the second term of Jokowi’s presidency is considered a landmark move by Jokowi to undermine the antigraft body. While there are good reasons to believe that the new law has somewhat weakened the KPK, one cannot simply ignore the fact that in the past, with its super-body status, the KPK was without checks and with only limited accountability. The new law provides arguably a better system for checks and accountability.

The Corruption Perception Index, in which Indonesia’s ranking worsened, is probably the strongest evidence that Indonesia’s anticorruption drive has lost steam under Jokowi. However, one should notice the corruption score improved from 2014 to 2019. Only in 2020 did the score drop from 40 to 37.

Finally, the article raises concerns over the role of the military during Jokowi’s presidency, as in the case of the appointment of retired army general Prabowo Subianto as defense minister. However, one needs only to look at United States President Joe Biden, who named an ex-general as defense minister. Also, during Jokowi’s tenure, the military’s involvement in assisting the police in several demonstrations is considered troubling. This, too, is not without precedence in mature democracies, particularly when demonstrations turn ugly and the police face difficulties in maintaining order. To conclude, the verdict given by the article that Jokowi has been sidelining democracy is convincingly unfounded, tentative and incomplete at best. One can safely say that the statement “Jokowi sidelines democracy” requires more time and more evidence to conclude.    *** The writer is a political observer at DTS and Mandala Research Institute

Sunny Tanuwidjaja- Advisor 

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