Long-running and increasingly controversial reforms of Indonesia’s criminal code are threatening to set the tone for elections this year and next, with the country’s progressives and now the president pushing back on what analysts have suggested is an unprecedented overreach of the political elite in contemporary Indonesia.
Overshadowed by the high profile efforts to criminalize same sex and out of wedlock sexual relations, the revised Law on Representative Assemblies slipped quietly through the House of Representatives this week on February 21.
The law, referred to as MD3, has alarmed activists and analysts alike who say it is a transparent attempt to snuff out criticism of lawmakers and defang agencies seen as combative, particularly the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Articles within the law would empower lawmakers to haul critical citizens in front of parliament for questioning and require corruption investigators and other law enforcement to consult the House ethics committee before pursuing a member.
While it’s not certain these reforms would have saved former Speaker of the House and former stalwart of the Golkar party Setya Novanto, the reforms would have made an already difficult task far harder. It also would have assisted the controversial politician in raising legal cases against online detractors, as he has done recently.
Novanto’s ability to have dodged questioning in almost ten cases over the years has reflected poorly on the legal system, as well as the political system which had appeared to be disinterested in the mounting allegations and continued to support the politician. If the KPK were required to obtain advice from the House, of which he was until only recently Speaker, it’s likely the long slog for justice would still be continuing today.
Ian Wilson from Murdoch University in Western Australia told Voice of America late last week the goal of the legislation is to protect the House from slander, although that would be misguided. “(It) makes little sense in the current political climate, and will undoubtedly increase the public perception of it as a self-serving institution,” he said. In the same piece, Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch was even less forgiving, accusing Indonesia’s lawmakers of being thin-skinned compared to counterparts overseas.
Civil society hit back quickly, with the swift organization of online petitions and social media campaigns demanding the reversal of the law. But with a Constitutional Court challenge necessary, activists may have to get creative.
Indonesia’s protest culture is one of the strongest in the region, with protests and demonstrations shutting down parts of Jakarta on any given day. If the law was to be applied wholly and indiscriminately, it would be possible for the entire function of the House’s Ethics Committee be reduced to solely questioning detractors. But of course, indiscriminate application is unlikely to be the aim of all eight House parties which backed the reforms. Watchers have pointed to corruption investigators as the most likely of targets and as one of very few groups which can elicit fear across the entire political spectrum it is the most sensible assumption.
The KPK regularly ranks within the top two of the country’s most trusted institutions, while the House flounders at the bottom. A war waged against the popular KPK alongside the lead up to regional elections in June followed by a presidential and more regional elections next year in surely undesirable. President Joko Widodo appears to agree. Jokowi, whose Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is one of the most vocally supportive factions backing the reform, has read the room and is treading carefully.
While the Indonesian political system requires the president to sign off on bills as only a matter of formality, Jokowi has been hesitant to do so. Tweeting after the law passed last week, he said: “The draft of the MD3 Law is on my desk, but I have not signed it yet. I understand the unrest in society about this. We all want the quality of our democracy to increase, not decrease.”
The hesitation, and more importantly the showing of support for it on Twitter, could see the president shift to a ‘democracy defender’ campaign style as the country moves quickly towards the next poll. While there will be a fair amount of valid criticism for it – after all, much of the ‘slide towards illiberalism’ has happened under his watch, even if he has pushed back against it – with former challenger Prabowo Subianto all but guaranteed to be recontesting, it will be a revisiting of election tropes increasingly familiar across the world: the new versus the old, progressive versus conservative, centrism versus fringe-politics.