Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and President Joko Widodo. Photo by Antara/OOC 2018/Prasetia Fauzani.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has acted to end efforts to extend his time in office beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. In a cabinet meeting on 11 April – the day before planned massive student protests against the proposals – Jokowi ordered his ministers to stop advocating for extending his term limit or postponing the 2024 Presidential Election.

While many observers have concluded that Jokowi’s strong stance has finally put the issue to bed, there is no guarantee that his ministers and political parties will heed his call. Indonesian oligarchs have a major interest in keeping Jokowi in power for as long as possible: maintaining the material benefits they have enjoyed during his presidency.

And even if Jokowi’s orders to cabinet are the end of the matter, the fact that discussions got this far is a serious warning about the extent to which Indonesian democracy has been hijacked on Jokowi’s watch by political and business elites.

Debunking the narratives

Supporters have relied on a number of flimsy arguments for extending the presidential term limit or postponing the elections: Jokowi needs more time to manage the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; it will promote economic recovery; and it will let the government complete development plans delayed because of the pandemic. Apparently even global instability resulting from Russia’s attack on Ukraine has become an excuse to extend Jokowi’s time in office.

Whatever the reason, extending the presidential term limit can only be done “legally” through constitutional amendment. But doing so would still be wrong, no matter how the proponents try to rationalise it. Even the most conventional reading of constitutional amendment theory maintains that extending the presidential term is off-limits. Constitutional amendment should aim to limit power, not extend it, particularly in Indonesia.

Rewriting the 1945 Constitution was one of the central demands of the reformasi movement that toppled Soeharto in 1998, to ensure that the excesses of his New Order regime would not happen again. The four-year constitutional amendment process that began in 1999 resulted in the separation of powers, the removal of the military from politics, the introduction of free elections, strong protections of human rights, dismantling of the New Order’s highly centralised system of rule, and perhaps most importantly, a two-term limit on presidential terms, to prevent the return of another dictator.

Given Indonesia’s dark history, the presidential term limit was a core post-Soeharto reform. Amending the constitution to extend the presidential term limit should be considered a constitutional taboo that can never be broken.

Wealth defence

To understand why oligarchs have been so blatant in their efforts to amend the constitution and violate the mandate of reformasi, it is important to take a closer look at their interests.

Prominent scholar of oligarchy Jeffrey Winters defines oligarchs as actors with significant concentrations of material resources, which they use to defend or increase their wealth and their exclusive standing in society. In short, oligarchs operate through the logic of “wealth defence”. They do this through the effective control (directly or indirectly) of political parties, law enforcement, media, and government.

The Jokowi administration has provided many benefits to oligarchs, so naturally they see change in power as potentially hindering their wealth accumulation. Significant deregulation policies enacted during Jokowi’s presidency, such as the controversial Omnibus Law on Job Creation, have greatly benefited Indonesian oligarchs and will allow them to amass more wealth at the expense of human rights and environmental protection.

This is not mere conjecture. Some supporters of extending Jokowi’s time in power have been saying the quiet part out loud. For example, Jokowi’s own minister for investment, Bahlil Lahadalia, publicly stated that his support for extending Jokowi’s term until 2027 was based on the interests of businesspeople.

Another reason floated for extending Jokowi’s time in office is the plan to relocate Indonesia’s capital city to Kalimantan. Many political elites and oligarchs have investment stakes in the mega project. They are worried that if a new president is elected in 2024, the project could be cancelled mid-way.

As Tempo magazine noted, one of the central figures orchestrating the push to keep Jokowi in power beyond 2024 is powerful Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan. He claimed he had “big data showing that 110 million Indonesians supported delaying the 2024 elections. Despite widespread demands to reveal his sources, including from Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), which lodged a formal request to his office, he has refused to do so.

Luhut has enjoyed sweeping political benefits and opportunities for significant wealth accumulation under Jokowi. As ICW and others have noted, Luhut serves as coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment – a role that involves overseeing the mining and energy sector – while also owning shares in Toba Sejahtra, a company with subsidiaries involved in coal mining and coal-fired power plants.

Further, while serving as deputy chair of the committee formed to lead Indonesia’s Covid-19 and economic recovery response, Luhut was found by ICW to be affiliated with a PCR testing business through his shares in Genomik Solidaritas Indonesia.

Luhut has held many other strategic positions during Jokowi’s presidency involving significant conflicts of interest. While Indonesian law does not yet prevent political figures from holding investments, there are significant overlaps between Luhut’s economic assets and the strategic political positions he occupies.

Indonesian ‘oligarchic realism’

You do not need a degree in political science to conclude that the Indonesian government and its legislators have happily bent to the will of oligarchs. They have passed legislation and implemented policies that remove or reduce regulatory barriers, allowing oligarchs in the mining sector, in particular, to extract natural resources quickly and unsustainably, with minimal consideration of conservation or human rights. The hasty and untransparent passage of the Mining Law and the highly controversial Omnibus Law on Job Creation in 2020 are two such examples.

It is becoming more apparent that in Jokowi’s Indonesia, oligarchs not only have their say, but also have their wishes served to them on a silver platter.

Mark Fischer popularised the concept of “capitalist realism” – the idea that capitalism has become so pervasive that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative political and economic system. Indonesia could be described as existing in an atmosphere of “oligarch realism” – oligarchs have become so entrenched in Indonesian political life it is hard to imagine a system where the interests of oligarchs do not reign supreme.

Certainly it now seems as though whatever the oligarchs say, goes. Even if bending to their needs also means destroying the very foundations of Indonesia’s hard-won constitutional democracy.

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