Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Friends of Indonesia Should Be Wary of the Government's Slow Erosion of Democratic Norms

Friends of Indonesia Should Be Wary of the Government's Slow Erosion of Democratic Norms

By Geoffrey Hartman, Fellow, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Indonesian president Joko Widodo—commonly known as “Jokowi”—in early August addressed criticism that his government is taking an authoritarian turn with a joke, asking the crowd at speeches in East Jakarta and Solo: “Do I have the face of a dictator?” The joke reportedly went over well for the humble Indonesian president and effectively undercut some of his more hyperbolic critics. It also sidestepped some legitimate concerns about his administration’s recent actions and a broader erosion of democratic norms in Jokowi’s Indonesia.

The cause of the current criticism is a regulation Jokowi signed on July 10 that amended a 2013 law on social organizations to give the minister of Justice and Human Rights the unilateral authority to ban organizations that oppose the official state ideology. The regulation—which will either be made permanent or rejected by the Indonesian legislature within the next three months—has been criticized by rights groups as an attack on freedom of association that puts every nongovernment and civil society organization in Indonesia under threat of dissolution by the government. 

The first—and so far only—organization to be banned under the new regulation was Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local branch of an international Islamist organization active in around 45 countries, including the United States. HTI had operated openly in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto in 1998 and was officially recognized as a civil organization in 2006. The group’s support for an Islamic caliphate provided the justification for its banning on July 19, making it the first Islamic organization to be banned in Indonesia’s current democratic era. 

Despite government claims that HTI was banned for national security reasons, the move was likely intended to send a message to other Islamist organizations who had joined HTI in the campaign against former Jakarta governor and Jokowi ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, now serving a two-year sentence for blasphemy. Ironically, HTI’s history of nonviolent political action probably made it a more attractive target than more infamous groups involved in the campaign against Purnama, such as the vigilante Islamic Defenders Front.

Jokowi’s ban of HTI has sparked criticism that he is anti-Islam, but it is more likely another data point demonstrating the pragmatic president’s willingness to ignore the niceties of democratic norms when he sees an opportunity for political gain. Jokowi, once derided for being weak, has shown a growing political ruthlessness during his nearly three years in office. This evolution was probably necessary for a neophyte president—only a couple of years removed from being a local mayor—to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of Jakarta politics, but the transition has been jarring given Jokowi’s reputation as a reform-minded outsider. 

After a disastrous first year in office, Jokowi managed to gain majority support in the Indonesian legislature and get his administration back on track, but at the cost of resurrecting a Suharto-era executive power and intervening directly in the internal politics of two opposition parties. Jokowi’s use of the minister of Justice and Human Rights’ latent authority to grant legal recognition to a faction of a political party coerced the Golkar party and the PPP (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, United Development Party) into leaving the opposition coalition and supporting his government, and allowed the president to ensure his preferred choice, Setya Novanto, became Golkar chairman.

Novanto—also the speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives—is now a key player in a legislative inquiry into the respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The inquiry is viewed as an attempt to weaken the commission, spurred by a KPK investigation into a corruption scandal that has embroiled Novanto—who was officially named a suspect by the KPK on July 17—and Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly. Jokowi has been criticized for not coming out strongly in support of the KPK, but his reticence is hardly surprising when some of his key political allies are leading the inquiry, with support from all but one of the parties in his coalition.

Jokowi has also been happy to engage in strongman posturing reminiscent of his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, most recently by instructing police to shoot suspected drug dealers who resist arrest. Jokowi has made the execution of foreign drug traffickers a signature of his administration’s “shock therapy” approach to fighting drugs, in part to convey an image of strength and boost his popularity. 

Despite the growing list of democratic norms violations, critics who accuse the Jokowi administration of authoritarianism are engaging in unhelpful hyperbole. Indonesia’s democracy, as imperfect as it is, remains the standard bearer in a region where democracy is far from the norm. The Jokowi administration’s deviations from democratic best practices seem minor in comparison to the military government in Thailand or the human tragedy that is the Duterte administration in the Philippines. Indonesia’s status as regional role model remains intact. Still, that status also makes the erosion of democratic norms there of outsized importance. If Indonesia won’t champion democratic norms, who in Southeast Asia will? 

There is reason to worry about further democratic backsliding in Indonesia as the next general election in April 2019 approaches. The Jakarta gubernatorial election earlier this year demonstrated the willingness of Jokowi’s rivals to exploit volatile social and religious tensions for political purposes. Jokowi has proved over the past few years that he is not opposed to playing political hardball himself, and the temptation to break a few more rules to ensure reelection may be hard to resist, especially if the opponent seems like a greater threat to Indonesian democracy.

The potential for a truly authoritarian leader to triumph in the 2019 elections is a real concern and could be used to justify further erosion of democratic norms in Indonesia to prevent an even worse outcome: After all, what is the point of scrupulously playing by the rules if it leads to defeat by someone who will throw out the rules anyway? This logic, as dangerous as it is for the strength of Indonesian democracy, is hard to argue against. Friends of Indonesia who want to see the country remain a democratic role model for the region should keep a close eye on events over the next two years and remain wary of the creeping threat of well-meaning political expediency.

Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Biweekly Update

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting concludes 
The annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting took place on August 5 and eventually produced a joint communiqué that noted concerns about land reclamation in the South China Sea. The foreign ministers also called on North Korea more strongly to comply with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The ministers, joined by China, also agreed on a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. In response, the United States, Australia, and Japan called on the parties to commit to a legally binding, meaningful, and effective code of conduct.

Duterte requests troop increase to battle Islamic militants 
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on August 1 asked Congress to approve a request to recruit 20,000 additional soldiers for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to tackle rising security threats from Islamic militants. Duterte’s request came during a meeting with a group of senators in which he shared intelligence reports on militant plans to attack three cities on the southern island of Mindanao. Duterte also asked to increase the current police force by 10,000, some of whom would be deployed as commandos to join the fight against Islamic militants, according to the Senate majority leader.

Repsol suspends drilling in disputed South China Sea area 
Spanish oil and gas company Repsol confirmed on August 2 that it had suspended oil drilling in Vietnam’s Block 136/3, which lies within China’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea. Repsol added it had spent $27 million on the project, but did not comment on reports that Vietnam had ordered the drilling halted after China threatened military action. Following the announcement, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on August 3 defended its right to conduct oil exploration in its waters. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on August 7 canceled a scheduled meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum in the Philippines, reportedly over South China Sea tensions.

Malaysia’s 1MDB misses $600 million payment to Abu Dhabi state fund 
Malaysian state investment fund 1MDB on July 31 missed a debt payment of over $600 million to Abu Dhabi’s state-owned International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) due to regulatory hurdles in getting the funds. Under the terms of an April settlement, 1MDB agreed to pay $1.2 billion to IPIC in two installments, with the first payment due by the end of July. IPIC initially extended the deadline to August 8—which 1MDB also missed—before extending the deadline again. 1MDB is now required to pay at least $310 million to IPIC by August 12 and the remainder of the first payment (plus interest) by August 31.

Vietnam accused of kidnapping fugitive executive in Germany 
The German government on August 2 accused Vietnam of abducting an asylum seeker in Berlin on July 23 and expelled Vietnam’s chief intelligence officer in Germany in response. Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security denied the allegation on August 3, claiming that Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former senior executive at national oil company PetroVietnam, had voluntarily returned to Vietnam. Thanh had sought asylum in Germany following an arrest warrant in September 2016 on financial mismanagement charges related to $150 million in losses at PetroVietnam. He gave a televised confession on Vietnamese state TV on July 31.

Singapore strips residency from U.S. academic accused of aiding foreign subversion 
Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs on August 4 stripped Huang Jing, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, of his permanent residency after identifying him as an agent of influence for a foreign country. The ministry claimed Huang cooperated with the intelligence services of an unspecified foreign country to influence senior Singaporean public officials and Singapore’s foreign policy. Huang, a U.S. citizen, has appealed the decision and will be allowed to stay in Singapore while the appeal process plays out.

Thai court acquits former prime minister of abuse of authority 
Thailand’s Supreme Court on August 2 found former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat and three other defendants not guilty over the deadly dispersal of “yellow shirt” protesters in 2008. The protest, which had blockaded the parliament building in Bangkok, was broken up on Somchai’s order by police using tear gas, resulting in two deaths and 417 injuries. The court ruled that Somchai and the other defendants did not intend for the clearing operation to cause serious injuries and did not understand that tear gas could kill.

Indonesia deports 143 Chinese, Taiwanese fraud suspects to China 
Indonesia on August 3 deported 121 Chinese and 22 Taiwanese nationals to China, where they are wanted for allegedly scamming wealthy Chinese businesspeople and politicians. The suspects were arrested during July 29 raids on residences in Jakarta, Surabaya, and Bali intended to bust a $450 million cyber fraud ring. Taiwan on August 3 protested the deportation of its citizens to China.

Cambodia arrests more than 200 Chinese nationals for Internet fraud 
Cambodian police on August 2 arrested more than 200 Chinese men and women accused of online extortion after a tip-off from Chinese police. The scammers allegedly persuaded victims in China to send nude photographs, which were then used to blackmail them. The arrests followed a July 17 raid on a group of 31, including 7 Taiwanese, who used a similar extortion method.

Indonesia reaches agreement with tech giants to block negative content online 
Indonesia on August 7 reached an agreement with Google and Twitter to increase monitoring of negative online content following government threats to shut down social media apps if they did not take steps to prevent the spread of negative content. Google will work with the Ministry of Communications and Information and Indonesian nongovernmental organizations to develop a “trusted flagger” system for content on YouTube, with the filtering system expected to be targeted toward content related to Islamic extremism, narcotics, and pornography.


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