Julia Lau – Recent student protests against rising living costs and rumours that Widodo might seek a third presidential term suggest that Indonesia's democracy is not as resilient as some may think.
On 11 April 2022, police in Jakarta fired teargas and water cannons to disperse protestors who demonstrated against rising cooking oil prices and a much-speculated extension of President Joko Widodo's second term in office. The protests were led largely by students, who warned that they were prepared to continue protesting until Widodo clearly denies that he wants to stay in power beyond 2024.
Together with their peers demonstrating in South Sulawesi and West Java, these student protestors today are reminiscent of those who bravely protested against Suharto in the troubled days of 1997 into the first months of 1998. There has been rife speculation from other politicians, including other political party leaders and members of Widodo's economic team, that terms for the president and also local branches of government might be extended, given the extenuating circumstances of the last two plus years of pandemic.
But President Widodo seems to have finally taken heed of these warning signals from the public. At a Cabinet meeting on 5 April 2022, Widodo sought to dampen speculation that he wanted a third term, ordering his ministers to stop talking in this way. He repeated this five days later, seeking to correct any lingering impression that he might be thinking of circumventing or making any exception to Indonesia's clear laws on presidential term limits. This echoes his statements in 2019, when he quashed similar rumours.
Widodo is likely concerned about what his eventual legacy will be, since the next general election has been set for 14 February 2024. He remains fairly popular, with high approval ratings in public surveys, but the pandemic has certainly scuppered any hope of clear policy victories anytime soon. Jakarta must now focus on economic recovery, regain sharp losses in tourism revenue, and urgently strengthen the country's notoriously creaky infrastructure to prepare for the next healthcare crisis. Even if Widodo is personally disinterested in extending his term, he might be wistfully considering that 22 months will be insufficient to properly launch his ambitious pet project of shifting Indonesia's capital to 'Nusantara' in East Kalimantan. While it has been signed into law, the nature of Indonesian politics would suggest that the path to Nusantara will not be smooth sailing. At any rate, the historic move will take more than two decades to complete.
For Indonesian observers lulled into thinking that Indonesia's democracy is a resilient one, the current protests might foreshadow a tough fight to preserve and maintain Indonesia's system of direct presidential elections after Widodo's presidency. Those in power who hanker for a return to politics with less accountability have consistently targeted the institution of Indonesia's direct presidential election, which is just under two decades old. Towards the close of Widodo's first term in 2019, he was viewed as a weak player. Even then, there was talk of amending electoral laws to abolish direct presidential elections. Counterbalancing this elite politicking however is the clear will of the Indonesian populace, which firmly rejects in surveys the idea of a third term for any president.
A brief history lesson will illustrate the tenuous nature of Indonesian democracy. Since independence in 1945, Indonesia has had just seven presidents, the first two of whom were not democrats by any stretch of the imagination. First national leader Sukarno's presidency lasted nearly 22 tumultuous years, in which his 'Guided Democracy' gave way to 'Supersemar' and a takeover by Suharto's orde baru (New Order) by March 1967 when the latter became acting president. Suharto, whose notorious authoritarian and corrupt reign of over 30 years (March 1968-May 1998) inspired Indonesians to overhaul their electoral system and overthrow the old guard, remains a negative example which no future leader would want to emulate.
After Suharto's fall from power, Indonesia had three transitional presidents in quick succession: his vice-president BJ Habibie served about a year and a half after being thrust into power. Habibie's successor Abdurrahman Wahid, whose erratic leadership gave way to Megawati Sukarnoputri (president from July 2001 to October 2004), served from October 1999 to July 2001. While each of these transitional leaders tried to make their mark on the system, it was not until 2004 that scholar-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the first popularly elected president of Indonesia. The two-term limit introduced in the 2004 presidential election was a clear signal that Indonesia did not want a repeat of the Suharto or Sukarno years.
Yudhoyono served two full terms (October 2004-October 2014), and contrary to some expectations, relative newcomer to national politics Joko Widodo (October 2014-present) won the 2014 presidential vote. At the time, Widodo's reputation was as a clean-cut, effective local leader and populist, whose furniture business in central Java and able governorship of Jakarta (2012-2014) made him a refreshing choice for Indonesians tired of corrupt politicians and entrenched nepotism. His anti-corruption platform and his humble background made him the people's favourite, and he won comfortably with a vote share of 53.15 per cent against his opponent Prabowo Subianto's 46.85 per cent in 2014. He bettered his own performance in 2019, with 55.5 per cent of the vote against Prabowo's 44.5 per cent.
With less than two years to go before the 2024 election, the unofficial start of campaign season in Indonesia is clearly here. Widodo only coming out recently to forcefully shut down the speculation about his aims is partly to blame for the growing anxiety amongst Indonesians that their hard-won democracy might backslide. In August 2021, observers had already noted the growing momentum amongst some Widodo supporters to push for constitutional changes that would allow a third term. Despite the efforts of 'Jok-Pro 2024', a lobby group championing a combined Widodo-Prabowo ticket, falling flat, Indonesians are keenly aware that a minority group of power brokers will continue to champion an extension or possibly even a return to an indirect presidential election.
Whatever his private ambitions, and however difficult it has been to govern Indonesia during the pandemic, Widodo would do well to listen to the students' complaints and set an example for all who follow him to the Merdeka Palace. A third term for him as president is a non-starter, and if he has not clearly identified a successor, perhaps it is now time to consider how best he can be a kingmaker to a candidate who will preserve his legacy.