Indonesia Executions Reveal a Darker Jokowi

Indonesia's shocking weekend executions of six drug convicts, five of them foreigners, unleashed a diplomatic storm but more tellingly revealed much about President Joko Widodo and his approach to government.

Coming from obscurity and sweeping into office on a wave of popular desire for reform – much of it spurred by disgust over official corruption – the new leader seemed a blank slate on which voters and the world beyond Indonesia could project their dreams for the country. The executions, some of his political appointments and the recent gaffe over the naming of a National Police chief are valuable clues that he is considerably less than the sum of the many aspirations directed his way.

During the run up to his bid for the presidency reformist Indonesians saw him as an incorruptible force who would begin moving aside the vast networks of sleaze that undermine the country’s progress. Liberals at home saw in him someone modern and hopefully passionate about projecting Indonesia as a secular country. Investors and other foreign observers hoped the knee-jerk economic nationalism of recent years would give way to pragmatism and pro-business policies.

So far, the government is more open on dialogue with investors but no fundamental shift on basic nationalism is likely. There is no aggressive move afoot on Islamic interests pushing for various measures including what many see as an expensive and unnecessary Halal Law that is harsher than those found in many Islamic states. The battle against corruption is a long-term one but the failed appointment of a police chief already under investigation for his bloated bank accounts was not taken as a positive sign.

But the executions are revealing in other ways. The reaction of Indonesia’s attorney general – himself a political party hack, not a reformer – was to say that people should respect Indonesia’s laws. The recall of the Brazilian and Dutch ambassadors over the killings of two of their citizens was brushed off by a Foreign Ministry spokesman who said the spat would have no impact on relations.

What does this say about Jokowi, as the president is universally known? Most importantly, his blank slate is increasingly being filled in and there are actually few surprises. He is a small-town businessman from East Java, a man who travelled for his successful furniture business but is not worldly; he is not an intellectual, a policy analyst or – importantly – an internationalist.

Those close to him say he gathers opinions from a wide array of sources but he governs by instinct and does not brook dissent inside the ruling circle once a decision has been made. In some areas this is undoubtedly a good thing, such as his desire to clear away obstacles to investment and streamline the bureaucracy. His predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, seemed obsessed with personal popularity and he delayed decisions and seldom took the lead on controversial issues. He played to the international community, often making hollow promises such as his 2010 headline-grabbing pledge to act boldly on carbon emissions after which he failed to take the tough moves at home that would have put real weight behind the promise.

In ordering the midnight Sunday executions to go forward, however, Jokowi showed his darker side. Such a move – obviously anti-foreign and self-righteous – ignored not just international feeling against capital punishment but the realities of Indonesia’s courts and the drug trade locally. It is an open secret here that the police often protect drug traffickers and own night clubs where drugs are openly sold. In addition, the courts are notoriously corrupt, which make the death penalty all the more chilling.

The message from the new president, however, is simple. He has made it clear he is no liberal or easy-going leader. He is willing to use judicial killing to make a point: we are tough and uncompromising. “The war against the drug mafia should not be half-hearted measures, because drugs have really ruined the good life of the drug users and their families,” Jokowi said in a Facebook post on Sunday. “The country must be present and fight with drug syndicates head-on.”

In Indonesia as elsewhere drug syndicates are complex beasts, usually protected from above. To kill a drug mule like Vietnamese woman Tran Thi Bich Hanh, who faced the guns Sunday, does little to go after a presumed mafia. What it does do is allow a new president to burnish his domestic credentials with those who fear foreigners, favor harsh punishments and have a simplistic view of the world.

One hopes that Jokowi learns a lesson from the adverse global reactions to the killings. One fears he will not.