Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, has undergone a profound democratic transformation since the fall of the Soeharto regime in 1998. Yet, the nation still faces significant challenges in advancing the rule of law. The newly-inaugurated President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) brings a reputation of consultative political reformer to the post, but he would have to contend with the power of entrenched vested interests if he was to enact change at the national level.
Indonesia’s democratic transition has undoubtedly evolved in the last decade. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono (in office 2004-2014) was the first directly elected president in Indonesia’s history - his predecessors always elected by Parliament. Direct elections at all levels of politics have so far encouraged strong participation among Indonesians, with a 75.11% turnout for this year’s presidential election.  Disappointingly, in its last few days in business the previous Parliament scrapped direct elections for local officials, in the face of a presidential regulation to continue them.
An issue Indonesia has always grappled with raises its head whenever Indonesian politics are discussed – corruption, as it pervades all levels of politics, and the judiciary. In 2013, Indonesia was ranked 114 of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a negligible improvement on the previous year. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators for 2013 ranked Indonesia in the 36.49 percentile for rule of law. Although a substantial improvement on the country’s 2003 ranking of 20.57%, this is still far below a level that would ensure fair treatment under law for all Indonesians.
Jokowi has already built a reputation for consultation and honesty, established during his seven years’ service as Mayor of Surakarta, in Central Java. He was able to parlay performance at this level into a successful bid for the Governor of Jakarta. Just 18 months after taking on the Governorship, Jokowi held a commanding lead in every national opinion poll, and was named as presidential candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). His outsider status is a novelty for the Indonesian presidency; his predecessors worked their way up through the military or party systems. It is this outsider status that at once frees Jokowi from conventional obligations and distances him from traditional areas of support.
By contrast, Jokowi’s opponent in the presidential race, Prabowo Subianto, was very much an establishment figure. A retired Lt. General with a dark human rights record, Prabowo is also Soeharto’s former son-in-law. His brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, one of the richest men in Asia, also provided substantial funding for his campaign. Many would argue that a Prabowo victory in the presidential election would have presaged a decline in both democracy and the rule of law. During his campaign, Prabowo openly stated that direct elections were not compatible with Indonesian culture and signalled a desire to abolish them.
After his defeat at election, Prabowo was not content with the result. He mounted a challenge in the Constitutional Court (MK), alleging errors in vote counting and various forms of electoral fraud. The MK rejected his entire plea, declaring that his case was unclear and lacked detail. Furthermore, the Justices concluded that, even if some irregularities had occurred, a re-vote would not exchange the outcome of the election. The court also made recommendations for the improvement of the electoral monitoring system.
That such a high profile case could be concluded in such a transparent way was a much-needed victory for the Constitutional Court, recently embroiled in a corruption scandal that had tarnished the reputation of the entire judiciary. The then Chief Justice of the MK, Akil Mochtar, was arrested by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) after accepting bribes to influence the outcome of a local election dispute in 2013. Mochtar was sentenced to life imprisonment in June this year, after being found guilty of having accepted more than AU$5 million in bribes to influence rulings.
The rule of law depends in part on an independent and impartial judiciary. Since 1998, constitutional and political change has created the framework for judicial independence and impartiality, but corruption at all levels continues to undermine access to justice for all, particularly the poor and marginalised.
Jokowi comes to office with an expressed commitment to opposing corruption. His manifesto lists 42 initiatives to strengthen the rule of law in Indonesia, including eight anti-corruption initiatives. His reforming desires may be somewhat limited, however, by the need to compromise that characterises Indonesian, and in fact politics worldwide.
Jokowi would have to negotiate with the Parliament if he was to successfully enact reform. His PDI-P gained 19% of the vote in the People’s Representative Council (MPR), winning 109 of 560 seats. Any legislation would therefore require a coalition of support among disparate political parties. The parliamentary coalition supporting Prabowo has for example already pledged to block Jokowi’s program of reform.
Jokowi’s new Cabinet may give some indications as to what compromises he would be willing to make. The new President announced his new Cabinet as the Working Cabinet: of 34 members, 20 are professional bureaucrats, 14 are party members, drawing members drawn from five different parties. Jokowi said that his Ministers were selected meticulously because the Cabinet would be working for five years. He added that he had sought ‘clean’ figures and, to that end, had subjected candidates to the scrutiny of both the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission) and the PPATK (Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre). Eight of his original nominees were red-flagged by the KPK, and their nominations withdrawn. Evidently Jokowi is already compromising - some of the nominees who were yellow-flagged by the KPK have made it into the Cabinet.
The appointment of Puan Maharani as Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture has been widely criticised as a political compromise. Vice President Jusuf Kalla has denied that the appointment was made solely to please her mother, PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri. The appointment could be seen as recompense for Megawati’s reluctant withdrawal from the presidential race and endorsement of Jokowi. Puan has been an MP for five years, but has no administrative experience, so it is a surprise to see her appointed to such a senior post.
Yet in his first Cabinet meeting, Jokowi set the tone for his leadership, clearly signalling his intentions that Ministers are not to run their departments as personal fiefdoms. Jokowi instead asked his Ministers to intensively coordinate with other Ministers to solve problems and enact policy.
The Jokowi presidency promises improvements in both democracy and the rule of law over the next five years. Just how far such reforms progress depends on Jokowi’s negotiation skills along with those of the PDI-P, and their ability to reach political compromise without abandoning principles.
James Dawson is LexisNexis Capital Monitor Managing Editor, ANU B Arts/ B Asia-Pacific Studies (current).