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Jakarta Post

Testing democratic resilience: Free speech versus freedom from fear

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, May 21, 2019   /   09:16 am
Testing democratic resilience: Free speech versus freedom from fear Prabowo (center, in black cap and beige top) addresses hundreds of supporters during a mass prayer held on April 19, just two days after the election, at his residence in South Jakarta. (Courtesy of/Prabowo-Sandiaga campaign team)

Indonesia’s democracy faces a big litmus test on Wednesday when the General Elections Commission (KPU) is scheduled to announce the results of the April 17 election amid plans for massive protests by the camp of Prabowo Subianto, who challenged incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the presidential race.

Complicating the matter is the police warning of a terrorist plot to create chaos in postelection Indonesia.

Police are struggling between ensuring the freedom of speech of the protesters on the one hand and guaranteeing national security, most particularly from terrorist threats, on the other. They are now having to define the limits of freedom of expession that would keep the nation safe.

Democracy is not only about holding free and fair elections, which on this score, Indonesia passed with flying colors after holding one last month, the fifth in the last 20 years.

Democracy is also not only about guaranteeing freedoms, including in this case the right to free expression. On this, Indonesia scores high, especially when compared with many of its neighbors and with other predominantly Muslim nations around the world.

Democracy ultimately is also about having strong and credible law enforcement. Without it, democracy could easily turn into anarchy and with anarchy we can say goodbye to all our freedoms.

How the government, particularly the nation’s law enforcement aparatus, handles this delicate situation will say much about the future of democracy in Indonesia.

For the nation, freedom from fear is just as important as freedom of speech, but would the people let the police sacrifice one freedom for the sake of the other? Police need to exercise caution and wisdom and not throw away all the gains Indonesia has made in advancing freedom and democracy.

It is now a certainty that Prabowo has lost the presidential race. With more than 90 percent of the votes counted by the KPU, as of Monday, Jokowi had a 10 percentage point lead.

But typical of a soldier, the former general refuses to give in. He has denounced the entire election as a sham and claimed that he has been robbed of victory. He has even proclaimed himself the winner.

His supporters plan a massive protest in Jakarta on Wednesday and many of them are converging from out of town. Some people around him are even talking about launching a “people power movement” with the clear ultimate goal of sending their candidate to the State Palace.

Supporters of Prabowo no doubt have the right to contest the results of the election. This is part of the free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, as long as they don’t break the law.

Police are not taking any chances and have declared anyone openly campaigning for “people power” to be committing an act of treason. At least one of the most vocal advocates, politician Eggi Sudjana, has been arrested. More arrests could follow before or after May 22.

Police have also stopped buses from many cities taking protesters to Jakarta and prevented would-be protesters from boarding trains heading for Jakarta these past few days.

The arrests of people in possession of explosives early this month raised the specter of a terrorist plot on May 22. Nearly 70 people have since been arrested in connection with this plan, many of whom were returnees from Syria, having fought alongside Islamic State (IS) group rebels seeking to create a caliphate.

The threat of terrorism combined with the planned protests has prompted the National Police to deploy their full force and, with the support of the military, to preempt the possibility of violence. They have appealed to everyone to stay at home and not join the protests.

They know the limitations of their power under democratic Indonesia and cannot prevent people from taking to the streets to express their opinions on Wednesday.

Prabowo has not publicly endorsed the planned protests, but he has not tried to prevent them either, saying his supporters were free to excercise free speech if they were not happy with the elections.

However, his statements and behavior have encouraged the protesters. Besides denouncing the election, he has ruled out taking his grievance to the Constitutonal Court, knowing that, in the absence of strong evidence of fraud, he’d lose the petition, just as he lost his case in front of the court in 2014, when he was similarly questioning a Jokowi victory.

If he had any shred of statesmenhip, he would call off the protests and gracefully accept defeat so that the nation could move on.

If Wednesday’s protests escalate and, God forbid, violence erupts or terrorists succeed with their plans, it would not only reflect badly on the security apparatus, but it would also tell us of their failure to enforce the law. Without law enforcement, so goes our democracy.

On May 21, 1998, Soeharto was forced to step down under pressure from the student-led people power movement after ruling the country for more than three decades. This paved the way for reforms, democracy and freedom and better law enforcement.

Twenty-one years later, the situation today is too different for us to draw any lesson from the 1998 people power movement. A better comparison for today’s prospect or fear of chaos is the days of bloody riots in Jakarta that preceeded Soeharto’s downfall, an event that Prabowo’s political nemeses in the military insist he had a hand in — leading to his dismissal from active service that same year.

On Wednesday, we will see if democracy survives the test of time.