Despite worldwide appeals for clemency for the Bali nine, President Widodo may not stop the executions to please his party and public.
April 28, 2015
Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor
Dial-a-leader: Widodo is under his party leader’s thumb. Photo: Bloomberg
Indonesia’s president is in a position of weakness. Pathetic weakness.
Joko Widodo, who took power just six months ago with stratospheric approval ratings, should have been feted when he appeared before his party’s national congress earlier this month.
Instead, he was humiliated. As he sat in the front row, his party’s chairperson, Megawati Soekarnoputri, harangued him from the lectern. She said that he owed the presidency to her. She told him to do as he’s told:
«It goes without saying that the president and vice president must toe the party line,» said Megawati, herself a former president and the daughter of Indonesia’s late founder, Soekarno.
«As the «extended hands» of the party, you are its functionaries. If you do not want to be called party functionaries, just get out!»
Megawati’s speech won applause described by the Indonesian media as thunderous. And the president’s speech, which he had with him, ready to be delivered?
Dial-a-leader: Widodo is under his party leader’s thumb.
It was not heard. Jokowi, the nickname by which he’s universally known, was denied the opportunity to speak to his party congress. It was, in all, a brutal and calculated putdown.
He meekly accepted this public humiliation. When reporters asked his response to Megawati’s tirade, he replied: «It was very good.» It was abject. But she is the power behind his throne. He now finds that he has no dignity serving her, yet he cannot rule without her.
The soaring hopes that Indonesia’s people had invested in Jokowi were dashed in the first few months of his presidency.
One of the reasons for the great popularity of the former furniture manufacturer was his unquestioned probity.
In his previous post as governor of Jakarta, he had impressed the people by living in an unpretentious house, rejecting the muscular cavalcade of police vehicles that he was entitled to, and giving every appearance of meaning it when he promised to campaign against corruption, the scourge of Indonesian society.
He was Mr Clean in a land where power is dirty, and Indonesians crave clean government.
So imagine the dismay when one of Jokowi’s earliest acts was to launch an assault against Indonesia’s well-regarded Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian acronym KPK.
The KPK is Indonesia’s most trusted institution. It has fearlessly pursued the powerful and brought down hundreds of politicians, officials, generals and police chiefs.
Since it started work in 2003, Indonesia’s corruption rating improved from less than 2 points out of a possible 100 to a score of 34 last year, according to Transparency International. Now Jokowi has put Indonesia’s progress in doubt.
Jokowi named as the new national police chief a man the KPK had marked as under investigation for corruption. The nominee, Budi Gunawan, is considered suspiciously well off. This appointment was the single biggest blunder Jokowi could have made. It set off an open war between the police and the KPK. The police arrested the head of the KPK on spurious charges to make a point – it was coming after the KPK.
Jokowi, after weeks of dithering, suspended the nomination but named an interim police chief who is just as dubious. Why did Jokowi make such a bad choice? Was Mr Clean really Mr Dirty? According to Indonesian media, it was at the behest of Megawati. Gunawan had once served as her aide.
So Mr Clean was merely Mr Weak. This was precisely the charge his rival for the presidency, Prabowo Subianto, made against him in last year’s election campaign – Jokowi would be Megawati’s puppet. And so it has proved. Now that his approval rating is negative, he is even more abjectly under her power.
Jokowi campaigned on the need to be tough on drug offenders. He called for the restoration of the death penalty, suspended by his predecessor. And Megawati is now pressing him hard on the issue. As part of his ritual humiliation at the party conference, she goaded him publicly on the issue:
«Megawati said to him at the party congress, «Why haven’t the executions been carried out already – you aren’t buckling to foreign pressure, are you?'» says Greg Fealy, a leading ANU scholar of Indonesia.
«The politics is that death penalty is extremely popular in Indonesia, Jokowi is slipping in the polls, he’s desperate to turn it around, and of the available issues this is the most readily available on which he’s looking strong, according to most Indonesians,» says Fealy.
Indonesia is a country insecure about itself in the world, and its politicians prey on this to find popular favour. The Indonesian revival of the death penalty for drug offenders partly responds to popular clamour to control drug abuse. But it also plays to politicians wanting to demonstrate a faux defiance of world powers.
For instance, the head of the armed forces, Moeldoko, said that the countries with citizens on Indonesia’s death row might try to intervene, implying that Australia or France might mount an SAS raid on Indonesia to break their citizens out of jail. «It’s too stupid for words,» observes Fealy, «but it went down very well» with the public.
Now you know why the Indonesian authorities marshalled such a ludicrously overblown array of force, hundreds of commandos and four naval warships, to transport the handcuffed Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from one island to another.
A pathetically weak leader, pandering to a national pathology of perceived Indonesian weakness, appears to have decided irrevocably to put humanity and judicial rigour aside and to execute Chan and Sukumaran and the other prisoners.
Because only a pathetically weak leader would execute the powerless to prove his strength.