Analysis

Post-Pandemic Authoritarianism Looms in Indonesia

A crackdown on government critics accompanied coronavirus lockdowns. It hasn’t let up.

By , an Australian writer.
Indonesian police disperse protesters.
Indonesian police wearing personal protective equipment disperse protesters outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees due to gathering restrictions in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Oct. 4. ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images

In June, the University of Indonesia’s student executive body shared an Instagram post that took aim at Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, calling him the “king of lip service.” The students were frustrated with Jokowi’s lack of action on various promises, from fighting corruption to working with civil society to stop human rights violations. “Jokowi often sells sweet promises,” it read. “But the reality does not align. He says one thing, the facts say another.”

The students’ post was brave given Indonesia’s draconian cybersecurity laws—in particular the 2016 Electronic Information and Transactions law, which prohibits online slander and hate speech. Officials have made liberal use of the law to crack down on critical voices. The students certainly weren’t the first to accuse Jokowi of promising the world and delivering little, but their criticism quickly went viral. The president responded in a video posted three days later. He smiled calmly, as though brushing aside the students’ criticism. “This is a democratic country, so of course criticism is allowed,” he said, before requesting that viewers “not forget that we have a culture of manners, a culture of politeness.” The suggestion of a “culture of politeness” worries some of Jokowi’s detractors. What if their criticism isn’t polite?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Indonesia’s democracy appeared increasingly fragile. Jokowi’s government has increasingly targeted dissenters, from human rights defenders to protesting fishermen, and ignored local communities. The pandemic has exacerbated these trends, threatening Indonesians’ right to freedom of expression. Although the president insists his government is one of pluralism and tolerance, without increased transparency and accountability, Indonesian politics could creep further toward authoritarianism.

In June, the University of Indonesia’s student executive body shared an Instagram post that took aim at Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, calling him the “king of lip service.” The students were frustrated with Jokowi’s lack of action on various promises, from fighting corruption to working with civil society to stop human rights violations. “Jokowi often sells sweet promises,” it read. “But the reality does not align. He says one thing, the facts say another.”

The students’ post was brave given Indonesia’s draconian cybersecurity laws—in particular the 2016 Electronic Information and Transactions law, which prohibits online slander and hate speech. Officials have made liberal use of the law to crack down on critical voices. The students certainly weren’t the first to accuse Jokowi of promising the world and delivering little, but their criticism quickly went viral. The president responded in a video posted three days later. He smiled calmly, as though brushing aside the students’ criticism. “This is a democratic country, so of course criticism is allowed,” he said, before requesting that viewers “not forget that we have a culture of manners, a culture of politeness.” The suggestion of a “culture of politeness” worries some of Jokowi’s detractors. What if their criticism isn’t polite?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Indonesia’s democracy appeared increasingly fragile. Jokowi’s government has increasingly targeted dissenters, from human rights defenders to protesting fishermen, and ignored local communities. The pandemic has exacerbated these trends, threatening Indonesians’ right to freedom of expression. Although the president insists his government is one of pluralism and tolerance, without increased transparency and accountability, Indonesian politics could creep further toward authoritarianism.

The pandemic reached Indonesia less than a year after Jokowi’s fiercely fought reelection in 2019. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, the one-time son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, initially refused to concede, and Jakarta erupted in violence. When Jokowi offered him the defense minister role a few months later, the government framed it as a gesture of national unity. Many citizens instead saw it as a threat to democracy: Prabowo has a checkered past and was suspected of encouraging his supporters to riot. Meanwhile, protests grew ahead of Jokowi’s inauguration in October 2019, led by a broad coalition of students and civil society who came together against laws that would weaken the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Security forces cracked down violently, killing eight people, injuring more than 700 others, and leading charges against protesters and fundraisers. The harsh response to the #ReformasiDikorupsi (“reform is corrupted”) movement confirmed many young Indonesians’ fears that the government did not have its citizens’ best interests at heart.

Criticism of the Indonesian government has surged during the pandemic.

Criticism of the Indonesian government has surged during the pandemic, particularly over the response to the delta variant wave that swept the country beginning in June. Although the situation is now beginning to improve, Indonesia has recorded more than 4.2 million COVID-19 cases and almost 150,000 deaths. Experts say the real figures could be significantly higher.

Citizens were angry that the government repeatedly downplayed the delta wave, such as when a senior health official said the collapsing health care system was merely “over capacity.” Allegations of preferential treatment for the political elite have further eroded government accountability. Inside sources said senior ministers and their families received vaccinations before front-line workers, and a program that would have allowed individual citizens to purchase vaccines was quickly modified after public outcry.

Many Indonesians are also frustrated with insufficient social support from both central and local governments as lockdowns have endangered the livelihoods of Indonesians living at or below the poverty line. Even during the worst of the delta wave, millions of informal workers continued their jobs despite the threat of fines. Expanded financial help from the government has been slow and even inaccessible to those lacking identifying documents. Those with connections, however, have accessed aid: Accusations of the government giving support to well-off families were widespread—and eventually acknowledged as a problem by the minister of social affairs.

Resulting financial instability has, in part, driven disillusionment with COVID-19 restrictions, which the government has adjusted time and again. The rules introduced in July, known as PPKM Darurat, were the harshest yet. Clever citizens gave the Indonesian acronym a new meaning: “Pelan pelan kita mati” (“slowly, we die”)—if not of COVID-19, then of starvation.

Indonesia’s struggle with COVID-19 and ensuing criticism has led to further restrictions on freedom of expression. Protests are often not permitted due to social distancing requirements, and when they are allowed, participants are curtailed or restricted to one location. For example, only workers could attend protests organized for May Day this year, preventing students from taking part. Even then, police investigated the head of one of Indonesia’s largest unions for allegedly breaking health protocols. This brought an abrupt end to the #ReformasiDikorupsi protests, although activists have done their best to continue the movement online.

More than 18 months into the pandemic, the Indonesian government appears more sensitive to dissent than ever before, sometimes taking legal action as soon as a controversial statement is made. Last month, a senior minister widely seen as Jokowi’s second-in-charge filed defamation complaints against two human rights defenders who accused him of having financial interests in security operations in Papua province. Meanwhile, although it remains relatively high, Jokowi’s approval rating is down nearly 10 percentage points from December 2020. His promises of large-scale infrastructure and a national capital city haven’t sparked much enthusiasm, especially among young people.

Issues fueling the #ReformasiDikorupsi movement haven’t gone away. In May, the government implemented a test that supposedly evaluated the personal values of KPK staff. Fifty staff “failed” the test and were dismissed while six others left after refusing to attend remedial training on nation-building and identity. Among them were outspoken progressives who questioned if they were targeted for their views. The firings will weaken the KPK’s efforts amid the pandemic. Corruption allegations against health care providers are widespread, and Indonesia’s minister for social affairs, Juliari Batubara, was relieved of his position last year after he was accused of taking $1.1 million in bribes from social welfare suppliers. (He was sentenced to 12 years in jail in August.)

Law enforcement power to crack down dissent continues to grow. The Electronic Information and Transactions law allows anyone to report suspected cybercrimes to the police. Last November, Balinese punk singer Jerinx was sentenced to 14 months in jail under the law after he called the Indonesian Medical Association “flunkeys” of the World Health Organization. A 2020 regulation allows the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to shut down access to online platforms if they do not take down content that violates the law or “disturbs the community.” Most concerning is the government’s apparent indifference to this repressive trend: Jokowi has promised revisions to the Electronic Information and Transactions law, but his government hasn’t followed through.

Jokowi’s Indonesia undoubtedly demonstrates authoritarian tendencies, but it remains unclear exactly how large a role he alone plays in its democratic decline. The president wields significant power, and his broad ruling coalition controls more than 80 percent of parliament, including 10 of 11 legislating committees. Indonesia’s parliament has pushed through several controversial laws since Jokowi’s reelection, notably those on job creation and mining. Despite his lack of political connections being his initial selling point, Jokowi also appears to be establishing his own political dynasty. His eldest son and his son-in-law were both elected to mayoral offices in 2020 with the endorsement of Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

On the other hand, Jokowi’s hardcore supporters stand by his image as a good man who cares about the little people, alleging that old-school elite are using Jokowi for their own ends. After all, Jokowi isn’t even the head of his own party, which is unusual for Indonesia. Former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, holds the position and exerts absolute control over the PDI-P. (She has long held political aspirations for her own daughter, parliamentary speaker Puan Maharani.) Megawati’s power will strongly influence candidates for the 2024 election, shaping Indonesian politics for decades to come.

Jokowi himself cannot stand for reelection in 2024—or at least he can’t under current Indonesian law. There are rumblings that his supporters are exploring constitutional amendments that would allow Jokowi to run for a third term, which could easily pass the parliament. Although he has so far denied wanting to run again, it is also clear that many of his grand plans have been derailed by the pandemic.

Based on his government’s handling of recent criticism, significant change seems unlikely during the remainder of Jokowi’s presidency. But the president could stop the slide if he wanted to by improving anti-corruption efforts, revising key repressive laws, and making a better show of listening to his citizens. Jokowi’s decisions will now not only affect who stands for election in 2024 but also the promises they make to voters as they chart a post-pandemic path.

Kate Walton is an Australian writer. She now lives on Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands in Australia after spending several years in Indonesia. She writes a biweekly newsletter on women’s rights, called Solidaritas. Twitter: @waltonkate

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