Argument

Indonesians Fear Democracy Is the Next Pandemic Victim

A comprehensive new bill claims to be about business challenges but dangerously strengthens executive power.

City workers spray a neighborhood with disinfectant in Jakarta on April 1.
City workers spray a neighborhood with disinfectant in Jakarta on April 1. Ed Wray/Getty Images

Some 3 million Indonesian workers have been laid off since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country in early March, many of them migrants who have been left stranded and homeless in the capital city of Jakarta. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is busy waging a war against scientists, playing down the pandemic by claiming warmer temperatures will kill the virus.

As a result, Indonesia has opted for large-scale restrictions instead of lockdowns—leaving it with the worst number of cases in Southeast Asia after Singapore as of May 1, with 10,551 confirmed cases and 800 fatalities, including 44 healthcare workers. More than half of the fatalities have been in Jakarta, though elsewhere religious gatherings have helped spread the disease. Mass Ramadan prayers continue to be performed despite health warnings.

While the country struggles to cope with the outbreak, the Indonesian government has other priorities: using the pandemic as an excuse to extend its own authority. The government initially submitted a draft Omnibus Law on Job Creation to the House of Representatives, the lower house of the country’s parliament, in February. A 1,028-page copy of the draft Omnibus Law seen by Foreign Policy contained 11 discussion clusters (sectors to be discussed, such as labor or the economy), with a total of 80 laws and 1,201 articles.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo told the BBC in February that he hoped to pass the law by mid-year. The bill’s advocates say it aims to boost economic growth by simplifying 79 laws that are believed to hamper business. According to his critics, however, the bill gives sweeping powers to the president—with no sunset clause.

In Article 170, the bill gives authority to the central government to issue a regulation to change the provisions of the law that are not amended on the Omnibus Law in order to accelerate the implementation of vaguely defined “national strategic policies.” A proposed amendment to Article 251 of the Regional Government Law, meanwhile, would allow the president to revoke regional laws by decree.

The bill’s articles are in violation of the Indonesian Constitution, which states that the formation of laws is the authority of the House of Representatives, not the government. The 1945 constitution sets the parliament as the supreme authority, but the bill would effectively give the executive near-absolute power. The president would have absolute executive and legislative power.

The bill is a stark contrast to the Regional Autonomy Act, passed in 2014 as a part of the reform agenda pushed by civil groups after more than three decades under the Suharto dictatorship. During his administration, Suharto built a business empire involving his family and cronies in the Golkar Party, using centralized power to enforce corruption. His family assets stretched across the more than 13,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago and around the globe.

“Our legal system has been messed up. The power given to the executive [by this bill] is extraordinary, and small-scale businesses will not benefit,” said Gita Putri Damayana, a researcher for the Indonesian Center for Law and Policy Studies. She added that regional regulations should only be changed through a material test process in the Supreme Court, the highest judicial institution and the final court of appeal in Indonesia.

Damayana also noted that the Omnibus Law Task Force assembled to help the government with the bill drew on only large-business owners such as the Employers’ Association of Indonesia. The lack of representation of small businesses suggests that the bill will benefit only elite investors.

Environmental activists are particularly skeptical of expanding the power of the executive. Many disastrous megaprojects in Indonesia have been linked to tycoons close to Jokowi’s ministers, but environmental impact concerns have previously successfully halted some projects. For instance, a PT Semen Indonesia cement factory project in Central Java was halted by the concerns of local farmers and residents over the destruction of the water basin, and the controversial Benoa Bay reclamation project, backed by the notorious businessman Tomy Winata, was blocked over fears of soil erosion.

Nur Hidayati, the executive director of the Indonesian Forum for Environment, said the bill would only strengthen the executive and that it reduced the power of the environmental review process, which now applies only to high-risk projects. “But the central government gets to define what ‘high risk’ is,” she noted.

Public hearings have also been abolished, and the whole process is now run online.

Ledia Hanifa Amaliah from the Prosperous Justice Party, part of the opposition, told Foreign Policy that her faction had expressed concern about the “sweeping power issue.” The party, as well as a leading labor union, has questioned the lack of public hearings for the bill.

Nining Elitos, the chairwoman of the Congress Alliance of Indonesian Labor Unions, noted that her group, which represents 130,000 members across Indonesia from industrial sectors, was not consulted and that the bill strips labor of significant protections.

Despite the criticism, the government and parliament are still discussing the bill. Last week, Jokowi decided to postpone hearings on the labor sections of the bill after hundreds of thousands of workers threatened to hold mass protests on April 30. “This will provide us with the opportunity to explore substantial issues within the bill and also to accommodate input from stakeholders,” he said.

However, the other 10 parts of the bill, including the economic portions, will still be discussed. A report from Kompas, the largest newspaper in the country, mentioned that the Golkar and Nasdem parties, which are part of the governing alliance, have been pushing to schedule time to discuss the bill.

Firman Subagyo, a Golkar politician and a member of the Omnibus Law’s working committee in the parliament, confirmed that his party has consistently pushed for the law as a matter of investment growth. But he said Golkar would take into consideration withdrawing the controversial Article 170.

“None of these communities who opposed us [NGOs and labor unions] would be able to intervene [the process],” he said confidently, implying that the party has the support of the other two dominant factions in the parliament, the NasDem and Gerindra parties.

As the process continues, unions have called for the government to cut the labor sections of the draft, promising a broader campaign if the bill isn’t altered. Jumisih, the chairwoman of the Inter-Factory Workers’ Federation, warned Jokowi last week that labor unions wanted the whole bill withdrawn or delayed.

As Indonesians across the country struggle to survive amid the pandemic, many of them have lost their jobs and face a bleak future of finding future placements to earn a living. They need help from the government. But once the pandemic ends, Indonesians’ next struggle will be facing the endless desire of politicians and business elites to roll back the advances of democracy and return power to the center.

Febriana Firdaus is a journalist in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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