Promising signs in Indonesia’s journey towards the rule of law as Jokowi takes over

OpiniOktober 18, 2014

Rowan Callick, Asia Pasific Editor Melbourne

LAST weekend, our son — who is a proud high school cadet — was among the school contingent whose annual parade was inspected by an impeccable Indonesian air force major. He delivered an encouraging speech in fluent Eng­lish and was warmly applauded by the large gathering of parents and well-wishers.

This was a timely reminder of who are our neighbours and of the goodwill and understanding that is building — ever so slowly — between our peoples. As recently as 15 years ago, an invitation to an Indonesian officer to take such a parade probably would have been perceived as provocative and courting unwelcome controversy.

Yesterday, the Indonesian component of the New Colombo Plan bringing Australian students there was formally launched in Yogyakarta. Indonesia was chosen as a pilot with Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. This marks a big step forward in university engagement with Indonesia.

Hopefully, this steady consolidation of the relationship at the community level will continue, whatever the ups and downs of the political equation. The rapid growth of Indonesia’s middle class, which looks to Australia for education, holidays and property investment, should reinforce that.

Of course, leadership counts for a lot, too. The recent Indonesian elections were conducted impressively and calmly — in a telling rebuke to the rulers of Hong Kong who view opening democracy to all comers as opening the doors to chaos.

About 71 million voters directly chose the easygoing Jakarta mayor Joko Widodo over his more intense nationalist rival Prabowo Subianto.

The win for Jokowi, as he is popularly known, promises well for the Australian relationship. He heads to the presidential palace following his inauguration on Monday, which will be attended by Tony Abbott, following a precedent set by John Howard. But he is new to national politics.

What can we expect from a Jokowi presidency? The visit last week of leading Indonesian human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis to the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society throws some helpful light on this question.

Lubis is a strong campaigner against the death penalty, and acted for the nine Australians arrested in Denpasar, Bali, in 2005. His firm, which employs 40 lawyers, specialises in commercial and human rights cases. And he is a strong contender for the post of law and human rights minister in the new administration.

He sees Jokowi’s main chance at making history as the president who finally puts into place the ­aspiration of the 1945 constitution that Indonesia should be a nation based on the rule of law — negara hukum. Former president Sukarno, he says, subordinatednegara hukum to the “unfinished revolution”, while Suharto subordinated it to stability and order.

Since then, all top officials have pledged to uphold the law, Lubis says. “True negara hukum, however, requires more than this. There have been so many irregularities, overlaps and conflicts between laws and regulations, and unhealthy rivalries between law agencies.” Resources have been inadequate.

During the recent election campaign, the promise to “recrown” negara hukum was frequently made.

“But promises are one thing — implementation is quite another.”

The constitutional power vested in the judiciary, for instance, has become a source of independence and impartiality — in theory. “Law in the books and law in action are, however, two entirely different things,” Lubis says. Research by the country’s Legal Roundtable found that most Indonesians believe judges are prone to bribery or undue interference — from the government, political parties and businesspeople.

“Throughout his campaign,” Lubis says, “Jokowi reiterated his strong commitment to fight corruption”, with 42 initiatives for strengthening negara hukum.

“Emerging economic nationalism and legal uncertainty have been regarded as the main hurdles for investment. Lately too many contracts have been changed unilaterally,” Lubis says.

It remains a nightmare for businesses to obtain permits or licences. Lubis says although the country keenly needs more energy, and despite the legal requirement to issue a licence within 324 days, one electricity company, a client of his firm, has been struggling to gain approvals to build more power plants and to add filters to reduce pollution from operating generators.

In practice, he says it takes three to five years to obtain such a permit. He has discussed this with Jokowi, with a view to simplifying regulations and giving the regions more autonomy over investment.

And “most court or arbitration awards are not enforced. Opposition — and improper influence — by losing parties is one reason … and there is also ambiguity on the part of the government.”

Jokowi’s target of 7 per cent economic growth to create three million job opportunities each year will require a firm commitment to transform Indonesia into a legally safe and attractive place for investment.

“But since the elections, there is a now a new momentum in Indonesia,” Lubis says. “Jokowi’s government will have a golden opportunity in its first year, with the people willing to accept the costs necessary to pave the way for renewed reform.”

Concern has been expressed about his adversary Prabowo moving to seize control of parliament and already starting to legislate the country back to the future — including by removing direct elections of top regional officials.

But Jokowi has yet to announce his vast array of cabinet and other positions. This is likely to swing support his way.

He is moving, for instance, to attract the establishment Golkar party, which previously backed Suharto, to join his coalition, with its tycoon leader Aburizal Bakrie in something of a business tailspin.

And if Jokowi’s PDI-P party leader, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, can be persuaded to sit down with outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his Democratic Party may also come across.

Prabowo’s influence will diminish with the inauguration, when parliament will probably return to its now traditionally fluid pattern of loyalties. Still, it will be challenging for Jokowi to stay on top not only of the legislature but even of the executive.

For although Jokowi can mobilise his chief assets — his grassroots popularity, civil society, and most media organisations — to realise his reformist domestic goals, he is likely to share decision-making, including on major appointments, with Megawati and with his highly experienced vice-president Jusuf Kalla — in part because of his lack of authority, as a relative newcomer, within the PDI-P power structure.

Jokowi has asked Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s top economist and a vice-president at the World Bank, to return as finance minister, but she appears reluctant.

He will need big guns in the economic portfolios — and convincing voices in parliament — as he will have to slash the massive government fuel subsidies, which eat up almost a quarter of the total budget, to achieve his reformist program in health, education and infrastructure.

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