Indonesia’s new capital authoritarianism

Amidst the grapple with the COVID-19 recovery, President Joko Widodo’s ambitious $32 billion mega project to relocate the national capital continues.

This mega project is one of a variety of ambitious developments planned in the second term of President Jokowi’s administration. His “Indonesia Maju” Vision has spurred many development projects to stimulate economic growth.

This “new developmentalism” is widely adopted by emerging and developing countries to expedite economic progress. Eve Warburton argues that this “new developmentalism” is entrenched in Jokowi’s developmental agendas, revealed in the advent of “activist state” in present governance practices. In practice, an activist state will beget “developmentalism governance” that intervenes the market, policymakers, and other state’s key players to expedite the developmental agendas.

However, political constraints will inevitably impede the implementation of any developmental agendas. The challenge for the state is to integrate the interests among political actors, policymakers, and civil unrest to evade the socio-political fragmentation during implementation. President Jokowi is coping with this situation through two main actions.

First, he integrated various political interests in parliament, backed by his coalition that has already controlled 471 of the 575 seats in the Indonesian parliament. With almost no opposition  the majority coalition successfully spawned the fastest bill ever to pass the Indonesian parliament. Second, he appointed the Chief of the National Capital Authority (Kepala Badan Otorita Negara) with full discretionary rights. According to Article 9 (1) of Law No. 3/2022 (download here), the Chief of the Capital Authority will be selected, inaugurated, and dismissed by the president after consultation with the People’s Representative Council (DPR).

The former denotes President Jokowi’s prowess in consolidating political power. The latter has raised a potential threat to constitutional democracy in the future, notably at the regional level of governance.

On the one hand, minimising political competition may help mitigate political tension between parties who are in contention for the seat at the Authority and for the people to reduce horizontal conflicts. On the other hand, this moves against the basic principles of constitutional democracy, eliminating the people’s political rights to elect their leaders at the local level and to participate in the government.

The new legislation  does not allow the direct election of the Chief of the Authority by the people, unlike any other region in Indonesia and in apparent contradiction with Article 18 (4) of the 1945 Constitution, which mandates that every regional leader be democratically elected. No constitutional provision states otherwise or gives leeway in the form of open legal policy regarding the democratic election of the leaders.

Of course, political constraints can hinder the developmentalism and stability that Jokowi’s regime has targeted since the beginning of this relocation, but achieving that objective should not mean eliminating political freedom at the local level. Political freedom is a guaranteed basic right in the constitution, as a manifestation of the people’s sovereignty over the state. Therefore, the right to vote as means to participate in governance and assert dominance over political groups should be protected.

If the central government insists on implementing this model of Authority in the capital, every regional decision in the city will be centralised without the political participation of local residents. This phenomenon is an example of what Tom Ginsburg and Azis Huq called “constitutional retrogression”: a slow decline to a flawed democracy by using constitutional measures to fulfil political agendas, although the substance is against the constitution. Jokowi’s means for achieving stability in the end result in authoritarianism.

Development under Jokowi leaves human rights behind

Jokowi's priorities for his second term revolve around human resources development, but not human rights.

Should the government continue with the implementation of the Capital Authority as stipulated in Law No. 3/2022, the people will have no forum to participate in the local government. Normally, every region in Indonesia has its own Regional Representative Council (DPRD) as a forum to represent the residents in the region, to hold the executive accountable to their residents, and to exercise checks and balances at the local level.

Without the council the central government will have exclusive control, the effectiveness of which would be questionable if the Chief comes from the government’s inner circle and reflects a possible patron-client relationship. Without agency or voice for the regions constituents, their aspirations will be less likely to be heard, to influence the policies. Further their rights are more vulnerable to violation in the name of ‘maintaining order.’

The government should at least consider the regional government model of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, There, although the positions of Governor and Vice Governor are not democratically elected—instead being inherited by the Sultan and “Paku Alam” respectively—room for regional democracy remains through the retention of the democratically elected DPRD as a channel for constituent aspirations.

President Joko Widodo and the central government are looking for a shortcut to enable their vision of new developmentalism in the new capital city. Though the Capital Authority acts as a “fast track” for the goal, they have to bear in mind the cost for constitutional democracy at the local level in the future. It is never too late to rethink the model, to create room for the people to engage in governance, to protect basic rights protection. Creating stability is one thing and respecting people’s sovereignty is another.

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