Has Indonesia’s justice system become more corrupt under Jokowi?

Nine years after winning his presidential election, observers argue that Indonesian democracy has undergone a decline and that its justice system has been crippled under the weight of the competing interests of oligarchs.

Nina A. Loasana

Nina A. Loasana

The Jakarta Post


President Joko Widodo bestows the Bintang Republik Indonesia Adipradana on First Lady Iriana at the State Palace in Jakarta in August 2023. PHOTO: PRESIDENTIAL PALACE PRESS BUREAU/THE JAKARTA POST

October 23, 2023

JAKARTA – As an outsider with no affiliation with Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order regime, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was hailed as “a new hope” and the first true product of the Reform era when he won his first presidential election in 2014.

Nine years later, however, observers argue that Indonesian democracy has undergone a decline and that its justice system has been crippled under the weight of the competing interests of oligarchs.

The Constitutional Court ruling earlier this week, which paved the way for Jokowi’s eldest son to run in the 2024 presidential election, served as the latest proof of eroding democratic institutions under the Jokowi administration, particularly in the judiciary and law enforcement.

The court ruled in favor of adding a provision to the Elections Law allowing candidates with experience as an elected regional leader to run for president or vice president, even if they are under the 40-year minimum age.

The case was filed by Surakarta University (UNSA) student Almas Tsaqibbirru, who, according to his petition, was inspired by the successful leadership of Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Jokowi’s son.

Despite being a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Gibran appears to be a strong contender for running mate for Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s former political rival, who in recent years has forged close ties with the President.

Watchdogs and civil rights organizations have lambasted the court’s decision as politically driven and ridden with conflicts of interest, on account of the role of Chief Justice Anwar Usman, Gibran’s uncle by marriage.

Anwar swayed the top court’s decision in favor of partially granting the petition in spite of the bench’s initial rejection. Even Deputy Chief Justice Saldi Isra, who expressed a dissenting opinion, said it defied “the limits of reasoning”.

Read also: Legal groups demand ethics probe into Constitutional Court chief justice following ruling

Declining integrity

The controversial ruling was far from the first scandal to involve the Constitutional Court under Jokowi’s tenure.

Earlier this month, the court rejected petitions to revoke Jokowi’s controversial government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) on the 2020 Job Creation Law, amid mounting protests from labor unions. The law revises labor rights and relaxes environmental protections in favor of attracting investment.

The Perppu was signed by Jokowi in December 2022 in an effort to resuscitate the jobs law, which was declared “conditionally unconstitutional” by the Constitutional Court in 2021 due to its unprecedented use of the omnibus method to revise multiple laws at once.

One of the justices who ruled against the jobs law in 2021, Aswanto, was controversially dismissed by the House of Representatives last year way before his tenure was set to end in 2029, even though prevailing laws do not grant lawmakers the authority to remove a court justice.

Amnesty International Indonesia (AII) said in a statement on Friday that the deliberation and subsequent passing of the jobs law had “ignored the public consultation process” guaranteed by the 2005 ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Need we remind President Jokowi’s administration not to disregard human rights protections in service of economic development. The people’s welfare must be realized along with the fulfillment of basic rights, civil liberties and justice,” said AII executive director Usman Hamid.

Read also: ‘Fatal’ errors found as Job Creation Law enters into force

In May, the same court moved to extend the tenure of Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) leaders from four years to five and grant them eligibility for reelection to a second five-year term, effectively extending the controversial KPK leadership of former cop Firli Bahuri.

Public concern over the court’s apparently sharp decline in integrity grew in 2020 when the House of Representatives passed a revision of the Constitutional Court Law that bumped the maximum term for justices from five years to 15.

Activists accused the revision as being a “trade-off” so that politicians could influence the court’s future decisions on public challenges to the controversial bills the House deliberates.

Watchdogs have also said that longer judicial terms in the absence of stronger supervision could result in justices who are susceptible to political interference, eventually undermining the impartiality of the Constitutional Court.

Noory Okthariza, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the court’s declining integrity constituted “the peak of democratic regression”.

“In every democratic country, the constitutional court serves as the last guardian of democracy. Its role is so crucial to citizens’ constitutional rights. It baffles me that nobody seems to make a great deal of the fact that the integrity and independence of Indonesia’s highest court has clearly been compromised,” he told The Jakarta Post.

‘Disastrous’ years

The 2022 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), issued by Transparency International, showed Indonesia’s score falling from 38 to 34 points on a scale of 100. It was the sharpest decline since before the fall of the New Order regime in 1998.

But the biggest blow to the nation’s fight against corruption in the Jokowi era was the forced revision of the KPK Law in 2019, despite widespread public protests.

The revision legalized the formation of a KPK supervisory council that had the power to approve or reject arrests, search warrants and the wiretapping of people of interest.

The law also required all KPK employees – including forensic auditors, investigators and prosecutors – to become civil servants, effectively limiting their independence when investigating cases involving or related to the government.

It was at that time the House appointed Firli, a former police general, to helm the commission.

Read also: Jokowi’s administration gets red mark on graft eradication

The KPK leadership, particularly since Firli took charge, has been marred with controversies, from the widely criticized civic knowledge test fiasco that resulted in the ousting of dozens of KPK workers, including seasoned investigator Novel Baswedan, to an ethics breach committed by Firli for displaying a “hedonistic lifestyle”.

Firli is currently being investigated by the Jakarta Police for alleged graft and extortion attempts against former agriculture minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo.

Alvin Nicola of Transparency International Indonesia told the Post that the nine years of Jokowi’s presidency has been “disastrous” for Indonesia’s justice system.

“His leadership was marked by declining legislative control, the waning role of civil society organizations and the weakening of the judicial system,” he said in a statement.

Moral crisis

Alvin added that the nation’s law enforcement institutions, including the police, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), the court system and the correctional facilities, also continued to suggest a crisis of morals and integrity under Jokowi’s rule.

The Supreme Court has faced public scrutiny in recent years for consistently slashing the prison sentences of graft convicts. Recently, ten members of the top court, including two judges, have been implicated in a bribery case, although one of the judges ended up being acquitted due to insufficient evidence.

The police have also been involved in numerous high-profile scandals throughout Jokowi’s tenure, including the extrajudicial killing of six members of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) hardline Islamist group, a staunch government opponent that was eventually outlawed.

Last year, the National Police faced the biggest scandal in their history after dozens of officers were charged for attempting to cover up a premeditated murder committed by its internal affairs chief, Insp. Gen. Ferdy Sambo.

Read also: Legal experts scoff at Indonesia’s improved rule of law ranking

As the 2024 general elections draw near, watchdogs have also accused the AGO and the KPK of digging up old graft cases and going after Jokowi’s political opponents.

Concerns over Jokowi’s abuse of power over the country’s legal institutions deepened further this week after he boasted that he had complete access to intelligence information concerning the internal affairs of every political party, collected by the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and the associated departments in the military and the police.

“I know the insides of political parties. I know what kind of parties [they are]. I also understand which direction they are planning to go in. The information I have received from the intelligence is complete,” Jokowi said.

“Data, figures and surveys are all there. I have everything, and they only belong to the President because [they] directly report to me.”

The Constitutional Court, the KPK and the presidential palace did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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