Johannes Nugroho – Tens of thousands of Indonesian students have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demonstrate against what they see as a weakening of democracy, just as Indonesian President Joko Widodo is set to be inaugurated for his second term on October 20.
The protests were prompted by a recently passed bill that critics say will curtail the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission(KPK), and efforts to change the penal code to criminalise premarital sex, abortions and "insults" against state institutions.
The changes to the KPK law could have been vetoed by Widodo, who is commonly known as Jokowi. It needed the assent of both the president and the 575-member House of Representatives (DPR) – as parliament is called – in order to pass. Instead, Jokowi signed it into law.
The president, in an interview with media outlet Bloomberg last week, appeared unfazed by the protests, in which police used tear gas and water cannons on youngsters in scenes reminiscent of the unrest rocking Hong Kong. At least two students died and over 500 youngsters were arrested.
Jokowi said it was acceptable for people to express their opinions "but the most important thing is no anarchy, no riots, no destroying public facilities".
But one can argue that the protests were inevitable, given the Jokowi administration's prioritisation of much-needed economic development over other improvements.
Ironically, when Jokowi was elected in 2014, some of his most ardent supporters included progressive Indonesians who thought his platform encompassed legal and social justice reforms.
In Indonesia, reform is strongly associated with the term "Reformasi" – the 1998 student movement which eventually brought down Suharto's 32-year autocratic rule. Reform in the Indonesian context is therefore seen as removing some of the features characterising Suharto's rule, such as military supremacy, widespread corruption and human rights abuses.
On Jokowi's watch, Indonesia may have seen unprecedented infrastructure upgrades but the rule of law and civil liberties have been sidelined.
Earlier this year, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) Commander Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto called for the revision of a 2004 law which forbids active members of the military from serving in government, a move supported by senior government officials.
For a civilian president elected on the platform of reform, Jokowi has a penchant for filling government posts with ex-military generals.
Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime affairs and Jokowi's point person for relations with China, is a notable figure in this category. A retired lieutenant general in the army, he first joined Jokowi's administration as chief of staff and was then coordinating minister for security and political affairs before moving on to his current post. In a nod to his influence in the administration, Pandjaitan is often unofficially referred to as the prime minister by sections of the media.
For his minister of defence, Jokowi appointed retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu. This was a marked departure from what his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army general, did when he chose men with civilian backgrounds for that post. More recently, Widodo appointed former TNI commander Moeldoko as his chief of staff.
During their protests, the students also highlighted Indonesia's unresolved past human rights abuses, including the 1965-66 anti-communist massacres, the 1974 Malari Incident in which student protesters were killed, and the May 1998 riots where mass rapes of Chinese-Indonesian women took place.
Indeed, during his 2014 presidential campaign, Jokowi promised to put Indonesia's past human rights abuses to rest through justice for the victims and reconciliation. But to date no headway has been made in these matters.
To add insult to injury, those implicated in some of the incidents have been handed seats in government, such as coordinating minister for security and political affairs Wiranto, for whom a United Nations panel of judges in 2004 issued a warrant for crimes against humanity during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.
A pragmatic developmentalist, Jokowi seems to believe that all the needs of his people will be fulfilled through increased welfare and economic growth. So far he has taken issues such as human rights for granted. However, the student protests have shown the complexity of the Indonesian electorate's aspirations, which go beyond bread-and-butter issues.
To be fair, as a president who does not head a political party, his hands are often tied when his wishes clash with those of major political parties.
In the aftermath of the students' protests over the KPK bill, Jokowi said he was considering issuing a decree to nullify the new law. But after a subsequent meeting with the party bosses within his coalition, he seemed to have changed his mind.
An impasse has now been reached. The president's office has apparently returned the draft of the KPK bill to DPR because of "typos" in the document. A judicial review of the bill has been lodged with the Constitutional Court, while passage of the new penal code has also been postponed.
But the fight is far from over, with the students vowing not to give up until their seven demands – including scrapping the KPK bill – are met. In the meantime, the unrest has weighed on the minds of foreign investors, leading to them paring their Indonesian stock holdings amid fear of an economic slowdown.
As the date of his inauguration approaches, Jokowi should consider reordering his priorities and extending the scope of his reforms, if he wants to secure his achievements thus far and cement his legacy.