Lawyer at Frans Winarta & Partners
It was George Washington, unanimously elected by the Electoral College first president of the United States, who led by example when he chose to limit his own tenure as head of state and government.
Notwithstanding his popularity, he limited his terms of office to two. It is arguable that Washington settled the succession in the US in a peaceful manner, unlike in other nations where succession leads to power struggles.
However, rarely have our leaders emulated the awareness that Washington demonstrated. Even our first president, Sukarno, was named president for life. The same story goes for Sukarno’s successor, president Soeharto, who stepped down in 1998 after 32 years in power.
Dictatorship, which both Sukarno and Soeharto practiced, brought about conflicts and therefore hampered a peaceful transition of power.
The sweeping reforms that followed Soeharto’s fall from grace resulted in limitations on presidential and vice-presidential tenures to two terms, as stipulated in Article 7 of the amended 1945 Constitution.
The wording of the article is already crystal clear. Thus, Article 169 (n) of the 2017 General Elections Law and its elucidation already grasp the essence of the limitation of power to only two terms.
A limitation of power in the spirit of reform also applies to regional heads.
So a judicial review of the General Elections Law article filed by a group of individuals and a political party with the Constitutional Court in order to allow Vice President Jusuf Kalla to run for vice president for a third time raises a big question. They may be ignoring history or have simply forgotten what the reforms since 1998 are all about.
Even though the Constitutional Court may reject the motion, given the petitioners’ lack of legal standing, it does not close the case as the same request may be filed again until the court rules in favor of the motion.
The petitioners may claim to be acting in the name of democracy, but the court’s decision to grant the petition would enable politicians to hijack democracy in order to cling on to power.
Although Article 7 of the amended 1945 Constitution does not say that the limitation only applies to a president or vice president who has been in office for two consecutive terms, interpreting the provision as otherwise is simply a mockery of our hard-won democracy.
Defending the limitation of presidential and vice presidential tenures to two terms, consecutively or not, is the least we can do to ensure a healthy transition of power, or else the nation could fall into the grasp of the same people.
Thus, limitations on office terms are more of a political than a legal issue. We may undo the limitations through a constitutional amendment, but that will mean changing the national consensus we created when we put an end to the New Order.
We will hold national and regional elections one after another. From now on every year is practically a political year. In such potentially chaotic years ahead, it is important to ensure healthy and peaceful transitions of power.
The judicial review of the limitation on office terms could therefore spark a flame that will burn the whole forest. If a two-term vice president can be re-elected on the basis of whether they held office consecutively or not, why cannot governors, regents or mayors across Indonesia? And this will lead to the ultimate question, why not the president?
The judicial review is the tip of the iceberg of how the elites crave power. The Constitutional Court is the last bastion of our hopes of building a fully fledged democratic nation. The judicial review is a wake-up call for us that democracy is endangered.
Law and legal procedure become an excuse to justify the elites’ goals because they lack awareness and the dignity to limit themselves and move up the ladder as statesmen.
Confucius described three methods for learning wisdom. First, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. We have experienced the bitterness of unlimited terms of office.
Will we learn the lesson and exercise wisdom or do we want to live a bitter life once again?
The writer works for a law firm in Jakarta and is a graduate of the School of Law at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. The views expressed are his own.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.