A year of living dangerously for Indonesian democracy

The postponement of elections would be an ominous rejection of the institutions of democracy and would dramatically further a worrying trend of the Assembly’s seizure of power.

Patrick Grene and Haykal

Patrick Grene and Haykal

The Jakarta Post


Workers from the Depok General Elections Commission (KPU) stack ballot boxes on November 25, 2020 at a warehouse in Cimanggis district, Depok, West Java. (JP/P.J.Leo)

January 3, 2023

JAKARTA – As a young and rapidly developing nation, Indonesia naturally faces numerous challenges. Among the greatest of these is the preservation of democracy. The Constitution lays a powerful foundation that allows Indonesia to develop its governance while maintaining the essential rights and freedoms that define a just and fair civic society. Yet this year has seen powerful efforts to undermine and degrade democracy, including moves to weaken the independence of the Constitutional Court and impose restrictions on the freedom of the press.

These have culminated in a dangerous attempt to postpone the 2024 elections in defiance of the Constitution, as People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Speaker Bambang Soesatyo recently suggested.

Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, determining the allocation of power and allowing the people to directly influence the running of the government. The magnitude of their impact is illustrated by the enormity of consequences attendant on their absence.

Those seeking postponement claim that holding elections on schedule in 2024 risks political instability and extreme polarization, yet these are far more likely hazards of deferring the elections, spurning the Constitution and the electorate. Public relief greeted President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s prior statement that elections would be held on schedule and worries were further abated when the General Elections Commission (KPU) set the voting date and began preparations for the 2024 simultaneous elections.

These preparations began in June 2022 and have progressed on schedule. The KPU has registered the participating political parties and has allocated electoral serial numbers. Yet even as the nation begins its long march to the polls, rumblings from Bambang show that widely condemned efforts to postpone these elections remain in play.

Bambang has again suggested that the simultaneous elections should be postponed from 2024, leaving in place the current government. Such postponement would be an ominous rejection of the institutions of democracy and would dramatically further a worrying trend of the Assembly’s seizure of power.

Bambang’s suggestion rests upon the familiar rationale mooted when this plan appeared earlier this year: Indonesia faces a number of challenges, chief among them economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This seems flimsy. Challenges are always present and elections allow voters to determine the best way to confront them. Bambang’s claims are also suspicious given that the effect of a delay would be to allow the current Assembly to retain power without facing the electorate.

When these claims appeared earlier last year, they met with widespread condemnation and protest. President Jokowi then concurred with the protestors and emphasized that elections should take place as scheduled in 2024.

Yet the resurrection of these claims suggests that evidence of general disapproval has proved insufficient to sway the speaker’s intentions. The deputy speaker, Arsul Sani, has stated that Bambang’s comments do not reflect the official opinion of the Assembly and that any delay should involve consultation with the people.

Arsul is correct to express concern, but this is insufficient criticism of a move that would take away the people’s ability to decide the composition of their government. Any delay would perpetuate a disturbing tendency by the Assembly to allocate themselves increasing power and a manipulable public consultation cannot provide the legitimacy necessary to override the democratic will as expressed in the Constitution.

The headwinds the legislature has endured on passing the revised Criminal Code (KUHP) have demonstrated the hazards of its distaste for genuine civic engagement. Growing criticism, both internal to Indonesia and from international organizations including the United Nations, raises questions as to the legitimacy of lawmakers’ claims to represent the public interest and to respect the rule of law.

The legislature has shrugged off such complaints with claims that its actions represent the legitimate exertion of power and that safeguards exist to protect against overreach through the mitigating influence of the Constitutional Court. Unfortunately, these claims ring false.

The legislature has acted to curb the independence of the Constitutional Court, most recently through the effective dismissal of Justice Aswanto. Aswanto’s supersession was enacted on tenuous legal grounds, for the blatant purpose of silencing criticism of legislative action. Further efforts to undermine the authority of the Court remain underway, including a rewrite of the Constitutional Court Law to demand that Justices act as representatives of the branch of government appointing them, subject to review and dismissal if they fail to please their masters.

The three branches of government exist in a delicate balancing act, designed to prevent any individual branch from exerting unconstitutional power. Neutering the Constitutional Court represents a heavy thumb on the scales of justice, tipping the balance of power toward the legislature. While the executive branch might be expected to act to curb such excesses,

Jokowi has failed to countermand the legislature’s usurpation of authority. The executive is naturally to some extent beholden to the legislature, but his apparent comfort with this power grab ridicules the notion of separation of powers. Allegations that Jokowi’s inaction relates to his sister’s marriage to Chief Justice Anwar Usman add to the sense that the interrelation between the branches of government has reached an uncomfortably incestuous state.

At the very least, the conflict of interest here demands a careful appraisal of future procedure and full attention to ensuring that transparency and respect for the law remain the watchwords of government.

Alas, the opposite appears to be the case. Jokowi nodded through the suppression of the judicial branch and while he has so far opposed amending the election date, the Assembly can offer the temptation of two more years of presidential power. The recent statements by Bambang reawakening the seemingly slain dragon of electoral postponement suggest that Jokowi’s interests may lie in further empowering a legislature already out of control.

Should the election be postponed, over the objection of governmental watchdogs and the general public, Jokowi would have achieved an unearned extension of authority without facing the democratic appraisal essential to just governance.

The big winners of such a postponement would again be the legislature. Unfettered by constitutional bonds or democratic accountability, they would be able to further advance a program of legal action that has already produced a profound erosion of individual rights and constitutional safeguards. With Jokowi snoozing at the tiller and the Constitutional Court lashed to the mast, they would be free to sail the ship of state ever onward into darker and stormier waters.

Indonesia is a relatively youthful democracy and the authority of its institutions do not carry the weight of centuries of tradition. Perhaps this makes it easier for politicians to reconcile themselves to the concept that their actions are legitimate, even when trampling the Constitution that grants their authority.

Yet democratic nations throughout the world have recognized the necessity of corralling the potent force of an elected legislature within a legal structure. The Constitution exists to provide this and the Constitutional Court to ensure that the Constitution is respected. The Court may restrain the unimpeded exertion of power, but it also offers legitimacy.

The legislature must realize that it needs the Constitutional Court to remain independent and impartial. It needs an executive branch prepared to lead with integrity and honesty. It needs elections that allow the people to exert their democratic will.

Offering a bribe of further power to one branch of government and stifling another, while dismissing the people’s role in determining their own government, achieves none of this.


Patrick Grene, a Juris Doctor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, the United States, and Haykal, a master’s degree candidate in constitutional law at the University of Indonesia’s School of Law, are researchers at the Center for Constitutional Studies (PUSaKO), Andalas University.

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