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A Critic: Our Wayward Drift Away from Democracy

Presiden Joko Widodo didampingi Kapolri Jenderal Pol Tito Karnavian (kanan) dan Panglima TNI Jenderal TNI Gatot Nurmantyo (kiri) memberikan hormat di sela-sela pembekalan kepada calon perwira remaja Akademi TNI dan Polri tahun 2017 di Mabes TNI, Cilangkap, Jakarta, Senin (24/7). ANTARA FOTO/Puspa Perwitasari

Just last week on The Jakarta Post, it was published that Tito Karnavian was ready to adopt a Duterte-like approach to addressing the drug problem in Indonesia that’s rising due as the Philippine’s harsh handed police measures to drugs shift the overall weight of the drug route to the country. Just yesterday, such direction of law enforcement was supported by President Joko Widodo, allowing police officers to shoot drug smugglers, particularly those from foreign countries, on sight.

Bear in mind that there are drug smugglers that are also victim of circumstances; forced to take on the illegal works out of coercion and/or poverty. At least to differentiate between those who are and those who aren’t, a court of law is necessary.

In the long run, there has been no clarification as to how far would Tito be willing to take Duterte’s road; whether it be looser judicial oversight for addressing drug smuggling, or a generally broader authority to police enforcers on the field, or even going as far as Duterte and institutionalizing hit-squads for alleged drug smugglers and consumers.

Regardless, one cannot deny that this, though small, is a stern step away from what is democratically ideal. A state cannot proclaim itself to be democratic whilst in practice deny the basic rights of individuals to defend themselves in a fair trial, let alone erase the ability for the judiciary to oversee the decisions of the executive.
Tito’s statement, however, cannot be taken in void of the general stance of the whole administration’s take on Indonesia’s democracy. It is only another knot in a string of undemocratic signaling by the state.

Earlier this year on the 23rd February, in the aftermath of the much observed 212 Islamic Rally, President Joko Widodo stated that “yes, [democracy] has gone too far.” At the time, nobody paid attention, dismissing the statement as a mere claim by Jokowi who needed to maintain control over rising intolerance and identity politics in the country. But onwards, it is clear that such words carry institutional weight.

Late last month, the Minister of Politics, Law, and Security formally stated the government’s intentions to disband Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia;  an organization known to have anti-Pancasila ideologies and khilafah building intentions. Although it is a debate in itself whether the ban is democratically just, seeing that HTI has never acted on such intentions nor violently enforce their ideals (unlike the Front Pembela Islam), the government has moved swiftly and issued Regulation in Lieu of Law amending the 2013 Law on Societal Organizations.

The biggest difference that the new regulation carries is the erasure of judicial oversight over the disbandment of an organization. Prior to the regulation, the disbanding of organizations such as HTI would need to go through a legal proceeding lasting over a year. Now, such process that is vital to cross-checking the evidence of anti-Pancasila acts and the definition of what is anti-Pancasila is no more.

This eerily undemocratic drift taken by the government lies in two causes. First of which, is the lack of understanding and adoption of democratic norms (i.e. the rule of law and the non-derogable rights of citizenship). Indonesia, as a country that democratized itself in the late 90s, is described by Fareed Zakaria to be a backwards democracy; a state where liberal and progressive democratic norms are applied after the creation of democratic structures.

If democratic norms are not quickly instilled within the society and elites, as Michael Signer stated, such democracy will simply be an illiberal democracy; fated to fall to unrestrained populist policies that’s justified through democratic means and violates the very core of democratic ends.

This is particularly true in Indonesia, as the major and immediate focus of demonstrations during reformation was to oust President Soeharto and restore the will of the people, a demand for the return of a democratic structure (i.e. fair elections).

Although the general support for democratic norms existed in those times, continuous discourse on what they really are and how important they are didn’t take place, as the euphoria of Soeharto stepping down drowned the sense of urgency to talk about them.

Moving forward, our reforms have provided an over-emphasis on merely establishing democratic institutions and structures (i.e. fairer and more representative elections) without equally pushing the discussion of the norms needed to operate them. Despite the fact that we, on paper and intuitively, know what these norms are, we have never truly understood why they are vital to uphold. Even in times where it is easier not to (i.e. in facing rising radicalism and security threats).

Second of which, is figure politics. Our society’s tendency to place our support of policies on a figure as opposed to the merits and value of those said policies. Particularly, this time around, figure politics has centered around President Jokowi. This figure politics runs 2 ways. First, by centering our support of policies to Jokowi as a political figure it binds our ability to fairly judge and hold accountable the directions that he takes; for all that is taken by Jokowi is assumed correct. Even those policies that flirt with virtues outside democratic norms.

But secondly, figure politics affects both ways. In response to the society’s behavior in idolizing figures and not virtues, it incentivizes Jokowi to resort to policies that exemplifies his figure. It pushes him to use phrases and shift to stances that isn’t necessarily virtuous, but most importantly authoritative and “leader-like”.

A Jakarta Post article on May explained that Jokowi used the strong words “quell PKI” (a reminiscence of New Order phrases) because if he were to use jewer [ear twist], he would seem indecisive. This creates a pull factor towards strong, reactive, and quickly implemented policies that tend to place second the merits of principle.

This, however is not to say that Jokowi’s administration is undemocratic. There are areas whereby he has excelled welfare, growth, and representation to the people (i.e. land reform). It is to say however, that some of his policies, such as his support for extrajudicial disbanding of social organizations and killings of drug smugglers, currently are.

If we are to retain our respect over our title as the world’s third largest democracy, it is necessary for us to stay true to the virtues of democratic norms and not merely rest such title on the illusion of figure politics and democratic structures.

Alif Satria
Alumni Hubungan Internasional Universitas Gadjah Mada, Research Assistant di Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

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