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Jakarta Post

Is a COVID-19-like virus infecting the lungs of Indonesian democracy?

Is a COVID-19-like virus infecting the lungs of Indonesian democracy? A screen grab of a mass prayer event, attended by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and several religious figures, which was livestreamed by the Presidential Secretariat's YouTube channel during the pandemic on May 14. (YouTube/Sekretariat Presiden)
Tobias Basuki
Jakarta   ●   Tue, May 19, 2020 2020-05-19 09:29 361 fc6853813033f564188675f8bd8ee7ad 3 Opinion democracy-in-Indonesia,democracy,government-regulation,CSIS,Jokowi,Jokowi-administration,COVID-19,authoritarianism Free

Recently issued Government Regulation (PP) No. 17/2020 on the management of civil servants is another seismic shift undermining Indonesia’s democratic checks and balances.

PP No. 17/2020 basically gives the president full power and arbitrary authority to promote, demote or fire any civil servant. The vice chair of the Civil Service Commission (KASN), Tasdik Kisnarto, gave a rather nonsensical reason for granting this micro-management authority to the president. He claims that the president can take over civil service appointments if the merit system is abused.

This is an absurd reason, giving an individual such arbitrary powers over a merit system already in place. Basic logic calls for removing the merit system’s flaws, not giving one individual arbitrary power to supersede it.

The Jakarta Post published an apt editorial “Fight COVID-19, not critics”, on the relative silence regarding a certain creeping authoritarianism, felt especially in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s second term.

Of course, the government can say every day that it sees challenges from the opposition, with some very vicious rhetoric being voiced in public. Government spokespersons point to this as a clear sign of their open and free democratic attitude.

This, however, is a façade to a more disconcerting political culture that seems to have taken root lately. The policy and political debates are quite freely conducted among the elites. Elite opposition with political and financial power can make harsh challenges, even often stating untruths with impunity. Only to be co-opted later for a position within government.

Meanwhile, genuine criticism backed with argument and data from regular people can be silenced through foul methods both legal and illegal as in the case of Ravio Patra. It is still unknown who hacked Ravio’s phone to spread fabricated messages from him calling for unrest.

The bigger concern, however, is the favorite cudgel used by those in power to silence their critics: the infamous 2008 Information and Electronic Communications (ITE) Law. Observers have noted an increasing frequency in the usage of this defamation law in recent years.

On top of these, the well-intentioned government is bulldozing forward to set up and implement seriously flawed policies. The most recent is the omnibus bills, which again give arbitrary powers to the executive to operate above the regulatory framework.

The recent omnibus bills are the tip of the iceberg on top of problematic laws that the legislature has been trying to push forward in the past few years. As noted by Kevin Evans in this paper last year (“The danger of lame ducks rushing all those laws”) where he cited the revision of the Criminal Code (KUHP), which among many other problems grants powers to the state to encroach widely on the private lives of its citizens, the law weakening the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), to “drafts seeking to redefine economic rights governing natural resources”.

All these are serious symptoms of a very suffocating virus akin to COVID-19 infecting the lungs of Indonesian democracy.

Certainly, Indonesia is not moving in a police-state direction, as warned by Yuval Harari using China and Israel as examples in his piece in the Financial Times: “the World after Coronavirus”. It is much more low-tech for now, but unfortunately much less detectable because the authoritarian direction we are heading toward is based on good intentions.

President Jokowi does seem to have a genuine ambition to develop and grow Indonesia as a country since he was catapulted to political primacy in 2014. Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the law of unintended consequences in considering his policies, as well as political moves forward, in particular since his re-election.

It is without question that he is frustrated with the slow economic progress that he envisioned for the country, which has been further impeded by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Therein, lies the danger and explanation as to why Jokowi and his government appear slow in dealing with the pandemic.

In the midst of this pandemic his government seems to hold to a one-dimensional goal of economic growth and building infrastructure.

Economic growth is measurable concretely as a legacy—while consolidating democracy, a healthy political culture and maintaining checks and balances is not. This does seem to have been Jokowi’s main perspective from the beginning, but this limited view jeopardizes our democracy further in a time of crisis like this.

The pattern of government behavior and its double standards toward criticism is worrying enough. But Jokowi’s good intentions about keeping the economy moving and growing at all costs in the midst of a very delicate and complicated situation beyond the pandemic can have unintended effects that could cause the collapse of the lungs of our democracy come 2024.

There seems to be no clear protégé or successor groomed to continue Jokowi’s legacy. Meanwhile it is quite apparent that he is surrounded by very pragmatic politicians and power brokers with no grand vision for the country.

Thus, the million-dollar question is what happens in 2024? The only thing clear now is that whoever gains the throne in the next election will inherit a very cushy seat of power with very strong arbitrary powers concentrated at the helm. And the vultures and power brokers are comfortably positioned around that seat. It is something that Jokowi is unintentionally setting up now.

As the old adage says: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If the President continues on his path of strengthening arbitrary powers in the hands of the presidency for the sake of speedy action for economic growth, he may be on the way to gifting immense powers to a president who may not be as well intentioned as he is after the 2024 elections.


Research fellow, Department of Politics and Social Change CSIS Indonesia

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.