The highly contentious omnibus bill on job creation (RUU Cipta Kerja) has just been passed into law by the House of Representatives (DPR). In response, mass demonstrations have erupted in Jakarta and across the regions, with more than a thousand protestors arrested and hundreds wounded so far.
In response, the government and DPR insist the legislation process has complied with formal requirements, including adherence to principles of transparency and public participation. They claim to have involved representatives of labour groups and academics during the formulation and deliberation of the bill – though the nature and quality of this involvement remains heavily disputed.
Authorities have gone so far as to construct a counter-narrative to obfuscate public perception of the bill, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo disingenuously claiming that criticism was based on “disinformation and hoaxes” spread through social media. Meanwhile, the government continues to push the line that the bill will open up employment opportunities and will not harm the environment, despite criticism to the contrary.
The way that the government and DPR have constructed their own version of the bill’s legitimacy, and their own definition of representation in the legislation process, has meant that significant public dissent has been ignored, undermining democratic procedure. It reveals how Jokowi’s administration has manipulated the liberal legal system to serve politico-business interests, further damaging Indonesia’s already weakened democracy.
In our view, the relative absence of a coordinated challenge to the actions of Jokowi’s government has enabled this manipulation of democracy and the rule of law. Pro-reform forces have no representation in the DPR, and no recourse to challenge anti-democratic moves. Most political parties, including those in opposition, hold the same stance as the government – serving the interests of the politico-business elite.
Among civil society, social movements are fragmented, each focusing on their own sectoral issues, and are prone to being absorbed by rent-seeking interests. Likewise, many non-governmental organisations tend to be elitist in their approach, relying on the establishment of personal relationships with political elites, or swaying public opinion, to influence policy.
This type of approach poses no serious threat to anti-democratic forces. As a result, public criticism is easily ignored, and democratic mechanisms are manipulated for illiberal purposes.
Manipulation of democratic procedure and the rule of law for illiberal purposes is not a new pattern in Indonesia, but under Jokowi’s leadership it has become more blatant. One example is his administration’s much-criticised but ultimately successful move to curtail the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the country’s most trusted democratic institution. Similar attempts to weaken the KPK were made by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but Jokowi succeeded where his predecessor failed.
This may be because under Jokowi’s administration, civil society has become more fragmented, while anti-democratic forces have consolidated. Police and military figures have increasingly taken up strategic positions in the political arena, and are swift in extinguishing dissent – this week’s demonstrations are a continuation of the #ReformasiDikorupsi (#ReformCorrupted) movement, which last year ended with the deaths of five students.
Jokowi’s authoritarian tendencies are getting worse. This year, the president has exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to further facilitate anti-democratic interests. Under the cover of social distancing requirements, which restrict mass political demonstrations, Jokowi and the ruling parties in the DPR have pushed through several controversial bills that were rejected by last year’s student demonstrations. Revisions to the Coal and Mineral Mining Law (RUU Minerba) were easily passed in May despite widespread criticism of the threats they pose to the environment and to local communities.
Blocking legal recourse
Legal avenues to challenge these illiberal laws have largely been hijacked by anti-democratic forces.
A revision to the Constitutional Court Law was rushed through last month amid outcry. The revised law extends the maximum term for judges from five to 15 years, and allows them to hold their position to the age of 70, ten years longer than before. Activists claim the change is a gift to sitting judges, who in return may offer political advantages to the ruling elite. The move also likely anticipated possible petitions against problematic laws, including the omnibus bill on job creation.
Responding to public anger, the government has encouraged protestors to take legal action by submitting a challenge to the Job Creation Law at the Constitutional Court. This is because the government has doubtless calculated that there is very little chance their opponents will win.
Aside from this, encouraging dissenters to take legal avenues turns political challenges into mere technocratic matters. This also helps distract from the real issue of how most of these avenues have already been manipulated in the government’s favour.
Attempting to cancel the Job Creation Law by asking the president to issue a government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) is another dead end, as it was the president himself who initiated the omnibus bill. Jokowi has no interest in issuing the Perppu, as his comments about criticism being based on disinformation and hoaxes prove. Jokowi has been known to defend poor legislation in the past, as seen from his refusal to issue a Perppu to cancel the KPK law, as demanded by last year’s student protesters.
Even if a Perppu were issued, this would not address the entrenched illiberal political economic system that normalises manipulation of democratic procedure and the rule of law. Pursuing legal action is very likely a trap set by anti-democratic forces who have manipulated the system to serve their interests.
Legal action may no longer be the answer. Defenders of democracy in Indonesia must now take action beyond this trap.