Sebastian Strangio – Thousands of people took to the streets in the Indonesian capital Jakarta this weekend, urging parliament to reject a presidential decree that critics say would erode employees' rights and weaken environmental protections.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo issued the emergency decree last month to replace a contentious jobs creation law – an omnibus package of business-friendly legislation – after it was challenged by the country's Constitutional Court.
The law, which was passed by Parliament in October 2020, revised more than 70 other laws in order to cut red tape and make Indonesia a more attractive destination for foreign investment.
From its inception, the so-called "omnibus law" has been controversial. Unions have taken aim at provisions that will allow employers to cut mandatory leave and slash severance pay, while other activists have criticized a stipulation that environmental studies be required only for high-risk investments. The law's passage was attended by mass protests across the nation, which led to trade unions and civil society groups filing a judicial review at the Constitutional Court.
"This regulation degrades worker's welfare, reduces labor protections and causes widespread damage – on agrarian issues, the environment, protection of women," demonstrator Damar Panca Mulia, 38, who attended Saturday's rally in Jakarta, told Reuters. "Job creation should be in line with workers' welfare improvement, but this decree runs counter to it. That's why we oppose it."
In November 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that the law was partially unconstitutional, due to inadequate public consultations. The court ordered the government to amend key parts of the legislation within two years of the law's passage, saying that if the changes were not made, the legislation would be deemed "permanently unconstitutional."
Jokowi responded by signing an emergency regulation late last month that essentially overrode the law and forced the changes by executive fiat. He argued that the current global economic uncertainty – marked by rising oil prices and the Russia-Ukraine war – created the basis for the use of his emergency powers, and said it was important to ensure that the country remained attractive to foreign investors.
"We know it looks like we're normal now, but global uncertainty, risk is haunting us ... Actually, the world is not doing fine," Jokowi, told a news conference.
The protesters who came out on Saturday in Jakarta said that the president's use of emergency powers was a transparent ploy to circumvent the will of the people and called on Parliament to reject the change. (In order to become permanent law, the emergency regulation must receive parliament's endorsement by the end of its next session, which began on January 10.)
Jokowi's use of emergency powers reflects the leader's hard-headed determination to push through his economic agenda prior to the end of his second and final term in office next year. It also evinces an illiberal tendency that, in the eyes of many observers, is part of a broader erosion of Indonesia's status, gained at great cost since fall of the Suharto dispensation in 1998, as an example of successful and enduring democratization in Southeast Asia. Should the Indonesian Parliament affirm Jokowi's legislation-by-fiat, these worries – and the public's protests – will only continue to grow louder.
[Sebastian Strangio is Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat.]