In 2007, Akil Mochtar, the newly elected Constitutional Court chief justice, ran for West Kalimantan governor and lost. Crestfallen, he returned to the House, where he held a seat under Golkar. “In current teenage language, I was very galau,” he said, using a popular term used by angst-ridden Indonesian teenagers to describe their feeling of deep anxiety or dread.
“I lost. I was at a crossroads. I would never be nominated (for legislative candidacy) again (by Golkar),” he said, explaining that because he went against Golkar’s candidate, then incumbent governor Usman Djafar, in the race, Akil was seen by Golkar Party officials to have split Golkar’s vote, which resulted in its loss.
“I returned to Jakarta like a soldier who had lost his rank,” he said recently.
But his failure became a turning point. He applied for the position of Constitutional Court judge, where he was involved in the deliberation of the law that established the court. Six years later, he holds the highest seat in Indonesia’s judicial system: the chief justice of the Constitutional Court.
The 52-year-old was elected on April 3, after winning seven votes out of the nine justices on the court’s bench. He pledges an independent institution, independent justices and a court that is accessible to people.
Akil was sitting in his office. He sat at the head of a long table with high chairs. A large painting of the first chief justice, Jimly Asshidiqqie, hung on the wall. Akil is the third, after Jimly and then Mahfud MD. Both predecessors have shown an interest in running for president in the next election. Something that critics view as improper, as the position of chief justice should be the ultimate career, to preserve its justices from using it as a political stepping-stone, hence impinging on its independence and impartiality.
Akil claims that he harbors no such aspirations. “I want to be a farmer when I retire,” he said.
His history of being a Golkar politician has raised skepticism of his impartiality. “People say, oh Akil’s from Golkar so he would favor Golkar [in his rulings],” he said. “They don’t know that my relationship with Golkar back then was already in tatters,” he said.
Akil entered politics in his 30s, at the dawn of the reform era. He was already successful in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, at that time as an advocate and had his own practice. One of his high profile cases was his defense of three farmers in Ketapang who were falsely imprisoned in the early 1990s. His former high school principal, eyeing the Golkar leadership in West Kalimantan, asked him to join Golkar.
“‘Nah, I’ll pass,’ I told my principal,” Akil said. But, the principal convinced him saying that Golkar was different from the one in the New Order regime.
He consulted his friends. Back in 1998, he had a discussion group with lawyers, academics and journalists, dubbed Discussion Group 98. “Why would you enter? Are you crazy. It smells like sh*t. People are running away from it and you’re thinking of going in?” That was the reply his friends gave him, when he told them his plans.
But, Akil dreamed of bigger things. With his legal defense work in Pontianak, he said young advocates had torn down power there. Now, it was time to go to Jakarta.
So he ran for legislative election and won. The House of Representatives after the first free election after the fall of Soeharto was brimming with idealism, he said.
During that time, the Constitution was amended, and legislation that created respected institutions, the court and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was deliberated. “We’re reaping the results of reform now from the legislation that was deliberated in 2001, 2002 and 2003,” he said.
He ran in the 2004 legislative election, securing more than 100,000 votes, and came back to the house for his second term. But this time, it was different. “The political culture had changed. The reformed parties had returned to their old habits. I started to clash with their ideas and opinions. I often stood alone in my votes,” he said.
The discord between him and the party became deeper after he ran as an independent candidate in the West Kalimantan gubernatorial election. After that, when Akil applied to become a justice, he said that Golkar did not vote for him. He secured the position from support from other parties, he said.
Despite Akil’s claim of being free from Golkar’s influence, in August 2012, he was one of the five justices that blocked the government’s purchase of shares of mining company Newmont, which Golkar chairperson Aburizal Bakrie’s mining giant Bumi Resources had its eyes on. The court annulled the government purchase of a 7 percent share in PT Newmont Nusa Tenggara executed in May 2011, saying that the State Investment Agency (PIP), which oversaw the purchase, was part of the Finance Ministry; thus, its investment plans should be detailed in the state budget and approved by the legislature.
Akil ruled in favor of the House, which recommended that rather than having the Finance Ministry purchase the stake, it should be acquired by West Nusa Tenggara’s local administration, which was backed by a joint venture with Multicapital, a business unit of mining giant Bumi Resources.
Akil said that he would be a different chief compared to his predecessor. “I would not talk to reporters much about politics,” he said.
His track record as constitutional justice, besides the Newmont divestment shares ruling, is conservative with occasional surprises. In 2011, the court’s internal ethics council cleared him from a code of ethics violation, in which he was alleged to have received US banknotes equal to Rp 1 billion (US$111,000) from Simalungun regent Jopinus Ramli Saragih to uphold his victory in the 2010 election.
Akil supported the Anti-Pornography Law and Blasphemy Law through his decisions. He also supported out of wedlock children to have a right of legal acknowledgement by their biological fathers. Yet, he was the only justice that dissented on a ruling on the central-regional fiscal balance concerning mining that was requested by East Kalimantan province. The court ruled that the share of profit between the central government and producing regions was fair.
Akil, however, dissented, saying that it was fair for the producing region, due to it lagging behind in infrastructure, to increase the share of profit. “The purpose of the Constitution is first justice and then order,” he said.
He said he used a method of interpreting the Constitution on this ruling by viewing the Constitution as a living entity. “It has to continue to live and color all societal process in a country. It’s dynamic,” he said.