Indonesian President Joko Widodo won re-election in a relative landslide but his control over parliament will be more tenuous. Photo: Twitter

As the first Indonesian president not to come from the entrenched military or political elite, Joko Widodo was seen at first as a crystallization of the country’s progress as a young democracy. Expectations were high for a progressive leader who would stem the endemic corruption and take Indonesia forward on social issues. However, this optimism seems to have run out since his election last year to a second term.

From Jakarta to far-off West Papua, thousands have taken to the streets in protest. Across Indonesia, forest fires have raged unchecked at unprecedented levels. Within government, individuals with dubious track records are being appointed to powerful positions.

Although even his critics will admit that Widodo has made good on his promise of infrastructure development and social welfare, the backsliding on other issues has been worrisome. That has left Indonesians wondering if they really got what many thought they voted for five years ago.

No end to corruption

Indonesia is no stranger to corruption. On all levels, from business to taxation to public services, getting anywhere usually involves greasing the right palms. Despite this, Widodo has been clamping down on the Corruption Eradication Commission’s powers. Although relatively autonomous and effective in the past, its powers have been curbed by new legislation as well as an advisory body to supervise its activities. The commission, commonly known by its Indonesian abbreviation KPK, can now also only hire civil servants as staff, further threatening its autonomy.

Among several crises facing his government, this seems to be the most poignant one for Indonesian citizens. It has sparked massive student protests, with as many as 10,000 students protesting outside parliament in Jakarta. Hundreds of protesters and dozens of police have been injured, along with dozens of arrests. Widodo has the power to repeal the bill weakening the KPK by way of an emergency declaration but has shown no sign of doing so.

Considering the palpable discontent and size of the protests, many wonder if this piece of legislation was one step too far. Clearly, Widodo’s balancing act of pandering to his elite connections while keeping a semblance of popular support is teetering on a knife’s edge.

Before his appointment, much hope was pinned on Widodo’s status as a political outsider without ties to the corrupt elite. These setbacks are a blow in the battle against corruption for a country already scoring in the bottom half of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Such corruption can easily exacerbate inequalities and poverty and affect foreign and direct investment, ultimately hindering Indonesia’s progress in the international community.

Backsliding on crucial social issues

Widodo’s second term has also come with setbacks to religious, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), and ethnic-minority rights throughout Indonesia. During his first term, he was hailed as “Indonesia’s Obama,” a misnomer that must now sting where at first it brought hope. For one, President Widodo has repeatedly drawn Islamic hardliners known for airing extreme and divisive views closer to the upper echelons of power. For example, Ma’ruf Amin, an influential Islamic cleric known for his intolerant views, is now vice-president.

This can be seen as an attempt to win popular support in this Muslim-majority nation. However, progressives and human-rights groups are understandably concerned. Several bills have been put to parliament that would have led to criminalizing sex outside of marriage and in effect outlawing any same-sex relations. They are also feared to limit free speech by enforcing stricter laws against blasphemy and criticizing state actors.

Even more troubling are his last two appointments for the positions of security and defense minister. In 2016, he appointed Wiranto, a former army chief accused of crimes against humanity by a United Nations panel, as security minister.

Currently, the position of defense minister is held by Prabowo Subianto, Widodo’s two-time electoral opponent. He is the son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto and a former general accused of kidnapping and torturing pro-democracy activists.

Putting people like these in positions of power threatens to hinder Indonesia’s advancement and progress in the global community.

Discontent in Papua reaching fever pitch

West Papua has been an uneasy and ill-fitting part of Indonesia for more than half a century. As Indonesia’s poorest province and with a very different ethnic population from most of the archipelago, discrimination and exploitation are continuous worries.

Since the early 2000s, when high hopes for an independent West Papua were dashed by military intervention as well as the assassination of Theys Eluay, chairman of the Papua Presidium Council (PDP), the area has been under a low-key revolution. Discontent seems to be boiling over once again, with protests erupting across the province. This time, it appears to have been triggered by a racist attack on students by local police. Last August, 1,200 police officers were flown into the region to reinforce the military presence. At least six protesters were killed after a demonstration by thousands of people near the government offices in Deiyai Regency.

While these troubles were brewing long before Widodo’s arrival as president, his silence on the matter until recently has added to the discontent. So has his focus on infrastructure development at the expense of addressing social issues. To his credit, he has expressed willingness to hold talks with Papuan leaders, in a break from political tradition.

Indonesia burning

Widodo’s willingness to yield ground on social issues in favor of developing infrastructure and boosting big business has been a focal point in analysis of recent record-breaking forest fires. As early as September last year, more land had been burned than throughout 2018.

Cities as far away as Kuala Lumpur were heavily affected by the smoke, generating an international outcry. Images of red skies, impenetrable clouds of smog, and walls of flame have become commonplace. Young children are particularly vulnerable to this type of air pollution, and the 2019 fires alone are estimated to have put 10 million at risk.

What went wrong?

For many Indonesians, Widodo’s fall from grace as “Indonesia’s Obama” has been a disappointing experience. It’s easy to look back now and say that hopes were always a little too high for a developing Southeast Asian nation that only two decades ago was still a dictatorship. The soft-spoken Widodo’s election was seen as a counterweight to the recent global penchant for electing strongmen. His perceived isolation from the entrenched elite was also seen as an opportunity to disrupt the widespread corruption.

However, this might be a case of a man freed by his second term, for whom popular support is no longer as important. He probably sees cozying up to the powerful figures in government and business as the best way to realize his campaign slogan, “Indonesia Advancing.” While Jokowi, as he is affectionately known, did make impressive strides in improving infrastructure, Indonesia’s civil-rights community is left wondering whether this progress was worth it.

The Indonesian government must now focus on erasing autocratic legislation and remove corrupt leaders in order to promote a more progressive society that encompasses civil rights. Currently, Indonesian society is stuck in an authoritarian and corrupt system that affects people’s everyday lives, and this, in turn, could ultimately affect the advancement of Indonesia in the international community.

Jennifer Lyn

Jennifer Lyn is an international-relations specialist with more than 16 years of experience in the sector. She is currently consulting private US companies in regard to Southeast Asia and Middle East trade policies.

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