Indonesia’s Bare-Knuckle Politics Target Democracy

One might think that with a successful presidential election behind it and the loser’s court challenge to the result dispensed with smoothly, Indonesia’s intense political season would be over. Think again.

President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s political enemies are mounting a widespread counter-attack that seems designed to mute the powers of a new leader who is trying to break the hold of corrupt party elites. They are even trying to guarantee that no one like Jokowi rises from below again.

If successful, the various moves could see Jokowi relegated to minority status in the legislature and the direct election of local mayors and governors eliminated. The latter would be one of the most troubling political developments of recent years if it goes through.

The House of Representatives is threatening to pass a regional elections bill put forward by political parties associated with losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto that would take away the ability of local people to elect local leaders and hand that power instead to notoriously corrupt regional legislative councils. Direct elections of local leaders only began in 2004, and the proposed measure is a step back to the days of former President Suharto’s authoritarian rule, when elections were largely play acting.

The elected councils are known for being controlled by entrenched political party interests and the fear is that handing the power to appoint mayors and governors to the councils will cloak the process in opaque deal-making and virtually eliminate the possibility that a leader like Jokowi – a reformist two-term mayor before being elected governor of Jakarta – could emerge again.

The measure is deeply unpopular but the old elites associated with Prabowo are pressing ahead anyway. The powerful Golkar Party backs the bill in the current lame duck session of the legislature, as does Prabowo’s Gerindra Party and the scandal-tainted Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, whose former chairman was sentenced to 16 years in prison last year for corruption.

The backers of the measure argue it would save money and eliminate election disputes, but a recent nationwide poll by the respected Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) found that over 80 percent of Indonesians want direct local elections to continue.

The forceful deputy governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, resigned in disgust from the Gerindra Party last week over the proposed bill. “This goes against my beliefs,” he said to reporters. “I jumped into politics because the people supported me.”

Basuki, popularly known as Ahok, is set to become Jakarta’s governor in October when Jokowi ascends to the presidency. An ethnic Chinese Christian, Ahok’s election on Jokowi’s ticket in 2012, was widely seen as a rebuke to powerbrokers who ran a race-based hate campaign against him in Jakarta with little success.

In addition to the look back in anger of the local election bill, Prabowo’s political coalition – which also nominally includes President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s scandal-smeared Democratic Party – is so far intact, a sign that Jokowi could face a deeply hostile legislature when he takes office.

In normal practice here, most losing parties join the winning president’s governing coalition in exchange for being given cabinet seats and other lucrative political favors. So far, Jokowi has insisted he wants a “professional” cabinet not a rent-seeking assemblage of hacks looking to make money out of their positions. His party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle under chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri has so far resisted offering any goodies to Golkar or the Democrats to lure them into the new government and the backlash looks increasingly ugly.

In addition to the local election bill, the undercurrents between the incoming and outgoing presidents are not good. Jokowi has tried to get Yudhoyono to help him by sharing the pain of needed cuts in Indonesia’s massive – and corruption-riddled –fuel subsidy program. Yudhoyono has refused to act on the subsidy during his remaining time in office, provoking anger in the Jokowi camp.

But in an action that may or may not be related to the fuel subsidy, days after the president’s no, the powerful Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) accelerated the prosecution of energy minister Jero Wacik recently. One of Yudhoyono’s closest political operatives, Jero was named a suspect in an extortion case related to the ministry but he is also thought to be implicated in a spreading scandal involving the importation of fuel to Indonesia, most of which ends up on the subsidized market at great expense to the government.

The move against Jero was expected to be delayed until after Yudhoyono left office. Coming now, it takes on inevitable political overtones and is widely seen as part of the jockeying underway for what is an increasingly contentious transition.

Jokowi is seen as clean and the powerful KPK is easily Indonesia’s most popular government institution. The new president and the graft busters are natural allies even if the KPK operates independently.

One of Jokowi’s goals for his government is to take on what is widely known as an “oil mafia” of powerful and politically connected traders who control the vast import of fuel into Indonesia – worth about $150 million a day ‑ and make money on the subsidy. It is a high stakes game that could touch a number of powerful politicians – many of them allied with Prabowo’s angry coalition.

“He wants to stop this and he will,” said one Jokowi advisor of the oil mafia. “He is determined.”

In this context, the campaigning did not end with the July 9 presidential election. On one side, the local election bill, Yudhoyono’s inaction on fuels and a potentially hostile legislature are all part of a concerted effort to render Jokowi ineffective. High-profile arrests and direct appeals to the people who elected him on an anti-corruption platform are powerful countermeasures for the incoming leader.

The outcome of this early positioning is uncertain, and Golkar and other parties may yet join the new president in the interest of moving the nation forward. “Local elections, the KPK, all of this. It’s connected,” said a senior official in the current government. “They better work something out.”

This article originally appeared in Edge Review, a regional digital magazine about Southeast Asia