A Tipping Point for Indonesia?

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By: Dr. Rizal Ramli

DM1.CO.ID, JAKARTA: In an extraordinary turn of events, with less than six months after being re-elected and only weeks away from being sworn into office for a second term, President Jokowi now finds himself under fire and harsh criticism by the average Indonesian. The question is, what happens next? 

Much of the ire directed towards the president can explained by elementary economics.  Not long after his re-election, Jokowi and his economics team unwisely introduced a hike in the national health insurance premium and electricity prices.   Middle- and lower-income classes, already finding it difficult to cope with food inflation and a lack of employment opportunities, suddenly discovered that their pocketbooks were being strained yet again. 

Equally unwise was for the president to allow for the National House of Representatives, or DPR, to pass legislation that effectively disempowers the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, with barely a whisper of protest or display of moral authority.  Hence the public outcry and a growing student activist movement turning to the streets to demand the president do something to repair the damage inflicted.

The KPK, for better or worse, is a pillar in Indonesia’s democracy: as an important check on greed and excess by bringing to justice those who have abused the public trust for personal gain, it now stands to become the latest victim in a period of illiberal democracy.

Besides watching the government passing legislation that can only result in more corruption, Indonesians of all ages, gender and creed have also been angry about the DPR’s draft law to revise the Criminal Code.  Included in the draft are provisions to outlaw sex before marriage.  Criticizing the president would be tantamount to commiting a felony.  In other words, if passed, it will serve a devastating blow to civil rights and individual expression. 

For now, Jokowi has asked the DPR to delay a final vote on the new Criminal Code until a new House takes office.  There has been chatter of the need for the government to obtain more inputs from the public before taking the bill to the floor of the DPR for a final vote.   But Indonesians want to hear more from their president on this issue and take a leadership role in the debate, not just pass the buck.  Does he personally believe the draft law, as it stands, is for the better or worse of the citizenry?  Under what pretext could one argue that the law, which tramples upon individuals’ rights to make their own choices in their private lives and express their opinions, is trumped by some greater collective good?

Finally, Jokowi now finds himself facing growing civil unrest and violence in Papua.  Over the past few weeks, dozens of locals have been killed or injured in clashes with security forces after there erupted protests over news over yet more racist slurs being heaped upon Papuans.

So far, the government’s violent response to protests in Papua has been what would expect from an authoritarian, not a democratic nation.  Yet we have learned from the past, in places such as East Timor and Aceh, that suppression only breeds more contempt and fuels the fires of secessionist movements. 

Given this almost perfect storm of challenges, Jokowi must act decisively to find solutions.  On the economics front, he should find ways to get more disposable income into the hands of consumers.  This can be accomplished by having the government recapitalize the national health insurance program while providing free health care to the poor and more moderate premiums to middle-income Indonesians.  The cost of electricity, which constitutes a large portion of less affluent household budgets, should also be relaxed as a means of stimulating consumer spending and hence the economy.

In the realm of politics, a safer path forward for the president is within reach, as well.  Jokowi should reach out for legal counsel and craft a presidential decree that would restore the effectiveness of KPK in combating corruption.  He should use the powers of his presidency as well when the new DPR takes office and call for meetings with key legislators to discuss and reach a deal on a revised Criminal Code bill that is less intrusive and more aligned with majority opinions.  Finally, in the case of Papua, Jokowi can exert his influence as Supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to order a moratorium on the use of lethal force in the province and call for a unity dialogue with Papuan leaders and civil society.

What happens next is anybody’s guess, yet so far we have seen the president and his men looking for excuses, not solutions.   For example, when asked about the KPK, one close advisor to the president was quoted as saying the KPK acts as a deterrent on investment.  Officials have blamed hoaxes and “intellectual actors” for being behind the unrest.  A similar argument, that some unseen hand is behind the latest student demonstrations, can also be heard.

Hopefully the president will display more wisdom in October when he makes his final selections for his new cabinet.  To make it through this difficult period he will need men and women to present him with the hard truths and more viable solutions.  He can regain the trust of the electorate and his legitimacy if he addresses the fact that Indonesians from across the country want a more prosperous future for themselves and their families.  They don’t want to move backwards in their politics, and they want to preserve their basic democratic rights, not to have them undermined. (dml*/dm1)

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