University students protest outside the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, on September 24, 2019. Photo: Twitter/Tempo

As military jets raced last week across Jakarta’s hazy skies, the casual observer may have been excused for thinking armed forces commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto had ordered a show of force for embattled President Joko Widodo.

The low-flying fighters were, in fact, practicing for the annual Armed Forces Day, but they contributed to the siege-like atmosphere that has descended around the president just weeks before his October 20 inauguration for a second elected term.

Caught between the sudden emergence of a student movement willing to sow chaos on the streets, and a chamber of self-interested tone-deaf politicians accustomed to having their own way, Widodo must decide how to deal with recent retrograde revisions made to the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) law that has civil society in an uproar.

Widodo’s own Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), among others, say he will be “disrespecting” parliament if he issues a government regulation in lieu of law (PERPPU) that would either revoke the law, amend some of its contentious clauses or delay its enactment.

“The president is between a rock and a hard place,” says one reformist politician. “He is damned if he does and he is damned if he doesn’t, but he really has little choice than to do something to appease the students and appease civil society.”

Lawyers familiar with the drafting process are not hopeful, saying for a PERPPU to be meaningful it will need to be issued directly after the new law takes effect on October 16, marking 30 days since it was passed by the House. “There is still a chance,” says one, “but it is getting weaker by the day.”

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo speaks at a press conference during elections in Jakarta, April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

Confronted by public opinion surveys showing more than 70% of recipients supporting a PERPPU, the parties are nonetheless angling for either a further amendment process or a judicial review in the Constitution Court, pointing out that the law still has to be tested in practice before it can be judged.

When Widodo met a group of prominent civil society figures recently to seek their advice, he was quoted as telling them: “I’m a president who is without a political party backing him up. I only have a minister of justice – and he’s a party man (PDI-P‘s Yasonna Laoly).”

It was a revealing comment from a president who has never been fully accepted by his own party’s leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and who is often seen as a man alone relying on the advice of his security chiefs and a small circle of hometown advisers.

If Widodo moves in favor of students and civil society, he risks having the PERPPU rejected by the new House, which was sworn in on October 1. That has never happened, although Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hastily withdrew a regulation in the dying days of his presidency when it became clear it would be defeated.

What complicates things for Widodo is that he supported the legal amendments because he believes the KPK needs more oversight. But he has since said he was blind-sided by the extent to which the final legislation emasculated the KPK, leaving it potentially ineffectual.

Polls consistently show that the KPK is the most popular institution in the country, based on its proven track record of taking down corrupt politicians and officials.

University students protest outside the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 24, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

Lawyers sensing evidence of a political conspiracy were also struck by the way the new Corrections Law, one of three other fast-tracked bills now in limbo, allows corruptors to benefit from sentence remissions and generally downgrades the seriousness of the crime.

Agitating students are demanding a total revocation of the legislation, apparently determined to put parliament, as the supposed representatives of the people, firmly in its place. As one senior politician put it: “I don’t think the cat is out of the bag yet.”

Public distrust in Parliament has never been so low, according to opinion polls. And with 56% of the current lawmakers returned in last April’s elections — and parties continuing with business as usual — there are few signs the next five years will be any different.

The outgoing House clearly miscalculated in trying to rush through the KPK Law, and then following up with a similar but unsuccessful effort to secure passage of a draconian new Criminal Code and equally controversial bills covering corrections, land and mining.

In the end, the Criminal Code will have the greatest impact on personal freedoms and on Indonesian society in general, outlawing extramarital sex, cohabitation, sex education and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

It will now be taken up by the new parliament, with activists demanding a serious rethink of the legislation and the imprint left on it by the conservative Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), seemingly nudging the country closer to the status of a Sharia state.

The ease by which politicians are coerced has called into question Indonesia’s entire laborious legislative process, where a distaste for liberal values and a cultural obsession with consensus also weigh heavily on the pace and quality of law-making.

The leader of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) Megawati Sukarnoputri looks at a booth displaying memorabilia on the sidelines of the 4th PDIP congress at the Inna Grand Bali Beach hotel on the resort island of Bali April 10, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu ???ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.? - RTR4WS5T
Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

Megawati may now think twice about trying to push for changes to the constitution aimed at reintroducing Suharto-era State Policy Guidelines and, more crucially, indirect presidential elections which will only benefit the families of the powerful, including her own.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen just how resilient the student movement turns out to be as the potential future guardian of Indonesia’s democracy, which activists and academics agree has been sliding backwards over the past decade.

After being co-opted by political parties in the years following Suharto’s overthrow, they have finally broken free, urged on by lecturers from Jogjakarta’s Gadjah Mada University where defending the KPK has been a long and thankless task.

While the KPK law kicked off the protests, the Alliance of Student Executive Boards (BEM-SI), comprising student leaders from a range of universities across the country, are now also focused on broader issues that have undermined Indonesia’s democratic development.

“It started with corruption, but now they understand it goes a lot deeper than that,” says Gadjah Mada economics lecturer Rimawan Pradiptyo, the coordinator for thousands of academics who have signed petitions and staged protests in support of the KPK since 2012.

That is when parliament first began its assault on the KPK, seeking to control its use of wiretaps, the chief tool in any graft investigation. “The students didn’t do anything then, they were so passive,” says Pradiptyo, surprised as much as anyone by their sudden emergence earlier this month.

Indonesian students clash with police on September 25, 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: AFP Forum via Getty/Ed Wray

Apart from revoking the KPK Law and halting the passage of the other bills, the students are demanding the removal of military and police personnel from civilian posts, harsher action against companies responsible for the latest haze outbreak, a resolution to outstanding human rights cases and an end to militarism in Papua.

The latter is perhaps the most interesting of their demands. Civil society kept to the side-lines during Indonesia’s iron-fisted 25-year rule over East Timor, eventually buying into the government argument that the United Nations was to blame for the bloody 1999 vote for independence that led to its breakaway.

But the latest violence in the Papuan cities of Jayapura and Wamena seems to have finally opened the eyes of young people to the repressive nature of Jakarta’s policies in Papua and its failure to address issues beyond the call for more economic development.

That and the imminent departure of old-guard figures like political coordinating minister Wiranto could well compel Widodo to pay more attention to dialogue. Only this week, he said for the first time that he was open to talking to Papua’s separatist leaders.

In general, the students in Central Java at least appear to be split into two often distinct groups – those who support Widodo without reservation, and those who have a more realistic eye on the future and their place in it.

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