Preserve Reformasi

Commentary by Wayne Forrest

Things can come suddenly in Indonesia. If you haven’t been observing Indonesia closely since President Jokowi was reelected with a solid mandate in April, you might think that things would be going well for him leading up to his October 20 inauguration. But you would be wrong, the reformed-minded President is facing an existential challenge from those unhappy with moves they see as counter to democracy and reform. Behind them are groups with less pure motives, some could be threatening to unseat him.

In the past week, Indonesia has been witnessing its largest student movement since that of 1998, which brought down then-President Soeharto. The student protests in Jakarta and other cities (also joined by workers and activists) are centered around 2 pieces of legislation created by the outgoing Parliament (term ended September 30): a new criminal code and a revised law on the anti-corruption commission(KPK). However, protesters are also demanding changes to the proposed labor law, land, cyber-security and minerals bill; requesting legislators pass a bill on sexual violence; ban army and police officers from holding civilian offices; end militarism in Papua as well as forest fires; resolve past human rights violations cases; and remove recently appointed KPK commissioners deemed unqualified. Over 500 protesters in Jakarta accused of rioting were arrested Monday and several hundred were treated for injuries after police fired tear gas to disperse them. (all but 11 were eventually released). The students main message is preserve reformasi, the clarion call of the 1998 generation that ushered in democratic reforms, free speech, and many civil society groups. They accuse President Jokowi of restoring features of the New Order such as: criminalizing “insulting” the President, bringing back the military’s role in civilian affairs (dwifungsi) as well as undermining the independence and prosecutorial powers of the anti corruption commission. The proposed criminal code outlaws extra marital sex. In the midst of all this Indonesia has been hit with a bout of peat fires that seem to come every 5 years with El Nino’s drought, violent riots in Papua, as well as a frank report from the World Bank predicting recession if Indonesia does not make more fundamental changes to its climate for direct foreign investment. Oh, and there is a new Cabinet that needs to be chosen by October 20, the date of the inauguration of President Jokowi’s second term. With all these issues, one can understand why Jokowi asked Vice President Kalla to represent Indonesia at last week’s UN General Assembly.

Unlike 1998, the protests are not yet a direct threat to the regime but do pose an existential challenge to President Jokowi. He may try to avoid the choice between siding with the students in the streets or supporting elements of the political and business elite that want the protections inherent in all the proposed legislation. To his credit, President Jokowi has slowed the process of adopting several controversial bills which will now be reviewed by the new Parliament, perhaps in a revised form. At a convening of some of Indonesia’s most popular social, business, cultural and political leaders he strongly pronounced his commitment to free speech and democracy. He also signaled he may issue a decree-in-lieu-of-law to revoke the already passed bill altering the anti-corruption commission. Supporters say his seemingly anti-democratic moves are a defense against the growing influence of Wahabbi Islam and its threat to a pluralistic nation.

In Indonesia protests often have a mixed message and may not be as pure as they seem. Several times since the 2014 election of President Jokowi street protests that were supposed to be about a certain issue were co-opted by those seeking to undermine the President and even unseat him. The “212 Movement” of 2016, in which up to a million people gathered to defend Islam, was also a direct challenge to Jokowi’s leadership. Some right wing Islamic leaders (many of whom later supported the 2019 candidacy of President Soeharto’s son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto) called for his impeachment. Contacts in Jakarta report those elements remain and may be responsible for the violence that marred the otherwise peaceful protests around the country. Its not clear why Jokowi let the controversial bills proceed. Was his attention focused elsewhere ? Whatever the case, Jokowi now appears weakened without a clear path forward. This is a concern for those who want to see Indonesia implement structural economic reforms that focus on the direct investment needed to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector so necessary to absorb the underemployed, maximize its natural resources sustainably, and decrease its reliance on portfolio investment. He will likely attempt to accommodate all elements as has usually been his way, but in the end I fear something will have been lost, the energy for innovative change that the President often speaks about that many, myself included, hoped he could bring into his second term. Another 5 years of lukewarm 5% growth may be ahead.

(The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce or its members)