Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is confronting a host of troubles that are testing his leadership as he prepares to start his second five-year term in office on Oct. 20.
Student-led nationwide protests, sometimes violent, have broken out in response to the passage of a bill governing the country’s anti-corruption agency and proposed changes to the criminal code that critics say would undermine freedoms and curtail anti-graft efforts.
Two students died after clashes between protesters and police in the city of Kendari on Sulawesi island last week.
The government backed both bills, but the president last month asked parliament to postpone passage of the criminal code legislation, which had been scheduled for Sept. 24, after mounting public opposition and street protests.
In the restive easternmost region of Papua, protests and deadly rioting have left dozens of people dead amid growing calls for a referendum of self-determination for the mainly Melanesian region, where security forces have been accused of rights abuses.
The president has also been criticized for the government’s handling of fires that have ravaged large swathes of forest and sent air pollution to hazardous levels on Sumatra and Borneo islands.
“Mr. Jokowi is supposed to start his second term with stronger political capital than the first term,” said Noory Akthariza, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
“But he has faced criticism from all fronts as the recent events have raised questions about his commitment to democratic values and the fight against corruption,” Noory told BenarNews.
“Jokowi must address the protesters’ concerns because many of them voted for him,” he said.
Dealing with dissent
Jokowi won April’s presidential election with 55 percent of votes, compared to 53 percent in 2014. His rival was former general Prabowo Subianto in both elections.
When Jokowi came to power in 2014, the former furniture businessman was hailed as an outsider untainted by excesses associated with the 32-year-rule of autocratic president Suharto.
But critics now are saying that his government’s approach to dealing with dissent harkens back to the Suharto era, known as the New Order.
Since last month, police have declared an Australia-based Indonesian human rights lawyer a fugitive, accusing her of inflaming the unrest in Papua; charged an activist filmmaker with hate speech; and briefly detained a musician who raised funds for student protesters.
Riot police have also been accused of using excessive force on protesters.
Under pressure, Jokowi last week said he was considering issuing an emergency decree to annul the revised law governing the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the country’s most respected law enforcement body.
But lawmakers, who say that the KPK has unchecked powers, warned that such a move would be an affront to the legislature.
Political parties belonging to the ruling coalition also rejected the idea, Surya Paloh, chairman of the Nasdem Party, said Wednesday.
“For the time being, no such thing is being considered,” Surya, who is also a media mogul, told reporters.
He pointed out that the law was being challenged by a group of students at the Constitutional Court and a decision on the petition was still pending.
“If the president issues such a decree, we’re worried he could be impeached,” he added.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla said revoking the KPK law could undermine the government’s credibility, and might not end the protests.
Changes to the KPK include establishing a supervisory agency tasked with monitoring the commission’s conduct, and restricting its ability to wire-tap suspects, which has been instrumental in the arrests of lawmakers, police and government officials.
Jokowi, in a recent interview with Bloomberg, said he was not ruffled by the protests.
“Indonesia is a democracy,” the president told Bloomberg.
“If people want to express their opinions, they can, but the most important thing is no anarchy, no riots, no destroying public facilities.”
‘He needs parliamentary support’
Jokowi’s second term will be an uphill battle for him, said Zaki Mubarak, a lecturer in politics at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.
“Keeping the governing coalition intact will not be easy. We are seeing in recent days cracks emerging between the president and coalition parties,” Zaki told BenarNews.
“This could make it difficult for Jokowi to push through his programs, because he needs parliamentary support,” he added.
Global economic uncertainty and stagnant economic growth will also complicate Jokowi’s second term, Zaki said.
“Indonesia is not ready to respond to the U.S.-China trade war and its policy has been clumsy, unlike Malaysia and Vietnam which have seen growing investment as companies are moving out of China,” he said.
Indonesia’s economy is expected to grow below 5 percent this year, according to the World Bank.
To attract foreign investment, Jokowi has vowed to introduce major changes to labor laws and open up more sectors of the economy.
“Every year there are 3 million new workers in the job market,” Jokowi was quoted as saying.
“They must be given room to enter the job market. Second, we want to address investors’ complaints. We have to revise the law and we hope that more investment will create competition among companies to get better workers.”
An analyst at the Lingkar Madani think tank, Ray Rangkuti, warned that Jokowi’s failure to meet protesters’ demands could create instability.
“By issuing a decree, Jokowi can restore public confidence and demonstrates that the government is committed to eradicating corruption,” Ray told BenarNews.
“Now the ball is in Jokowi’s court. Will he listen to the demands of the people or acquiesce to the wishes of politicians with vested interests?” he said.
The students who have staged protests in major cities across the country have made a raft of demands, including an end to forests fires set for agricultural purposes and to “militarism” in the rebellious Papua region in eastern Indonesia, and freedom for political prisoners there.
They also urged lawmakers to withdraw problematic provisions in the criminal code bill, pass laws to reduce sexual violence and to protect domestic workers, and to hand down justice for perpetrators of past human rights abuses.
The bill to change the criminal code would have allowed a prison sentence of up to one year for consensual sex outside of marriage.
In addition, anyone convicted of insulting the president or vice president could face a prison term of up to 4½ years. Insulting the president and vice president was decriminalized by the Constitutional Court in 2016 following a legal challenge.
Rina Chadijah in Jakarta contributed to this story