The Indonesian president has promised reforms. Yet it was he who changed

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AGREEN OR DISAGREE: “Homosexuals should receive corporal punishment. This is one of the many strange questions asked during a civil service exam taken by the 1,300 employees of the Indonesian Commission for the Eradication of Corruption (KPK) in April. The formerly independent anti-graft agency will be integrated into the civil service, forcing its staff to pass an entrance test. However, the exam was not the standard passed by all candidates. Instead, it was written specifically for the KPK, with the contribution of the armed forces and intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. It included questions about the sex lives of workers and their views on various minorities. Seventy-five employees failed, including some of the commission’s top investigators. Two-thirds were made redundant.

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Indonesia is inundated with corruption. Last year it scored 37 out of 100 on a corruption index produced by Transparency International, a global watchdog, lower even than Brazil (38) or India (40). The KPK was created in 2003 to fight against the scourge. His investigations into business leaders, bureaucrats, politicians and senior police officers have resulted in the convictions of more than 900 people, including a handful of ministers.

Maybe it was too effective. Since 2009, the police have investigated and arrested the top KPK officials and lawmakers have repeatedly tried to restrict its powers. In 2019, parliament passed a law that deprived the commission of its independence and appointed a police general, himself sued by corruption allegations, to head the agency. The taming of KPK will end next month, the deadline for his integration into the civil service.

That President Joko Widodo, says Jokowi, put his signature on the bill fatally weakening the KPK surprised many Indonesians. When he was first elected in 2014, he was hailed as a reformer who would protect civil liberties and promote better governance. Yet he authorized a cabal of politicians, party leaders, bureaucrats and tycoons who conspired to erode the checks and balances of democracy. A year after taking office, Indonesia went from “free” to “partially free,” according to a ranking compiled by Freedom House, a think tank. At the start of his second term in 2019, “Indonesian democracy had fallen to its lowest level since the end of the New Order”, named after the authoritarian regime that gave way to democracy in 1998, write Thomas Power and Eve Warburton, Editors of Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression.

The president’s attacks on democracy are manifold. Under Jokowi, the state has stepped up its efforts to suppress opinions it doesn’t like. In 2017, the government gave itself the power to dissolve civil society organizations for reasons of national security. He treats protesters harshly. Ordinary citizens who criticize the government online face criminal charges or jail. The Ministry of Information regularly blocks websites it finds objectionable, including gay dating services.

Jokowi also eroded controls over rulers’ privileges. He appointed toads to lead the police, the armed forces and the attorney general’s office. He tried to get rid of political opposition by manipulating the boards of two rival parties to ensure loyalist factions were in control and by forcing opposition politicians, through threats of prosecution , to support his re-election. Its huge coalition encompasses three quarters of parliamentarians.

At the same time, Jokowi has surrounded himself with generals and increasingly relies on the armed forces to help execute domestic politics, such as increasing rice production. He likes to centralize authority, reclaiming some of the powers that were vested in regional governments after the fall of Suharto, the strongman who ruled Indonesia for three decades until 1998.

Occasionally, the President reminds voters of the candidate they have elected. It travels more often than its predecessors to remote areas, home to most ethnic minorities. In 2015, he ordered the closure of a corrupt subsidiary of the state oil company. Earlier this year, he called for a review of a draconian internet law.

Such movements allow the Jokowi threshing machine to operate. Yet they are doing nothing to tackle the rot deep within the state. The era of reforms after Suharto retained many of the officials of the former authoritarian. It provided stability at a delicate time, but it meant that many of the nascent democracy officials were not Democrats themselves. “Authoritarianism in Indonesia never really went away,” notes Ben Bland, Jokowi’s biographer. Corruption either. Bureaucrats and politicians continue to treat the state like their personal piggy bank. The oligarchs fed during the New Order have regained their influence. Today, they are the defining force in Indonesian politics, says Vedi Hadiz of the University of Melbourne.

This is the system that Jokowi’s supporters believed he was going to dismantle. But the president has proven to be a pragmatist rather than an idealist, flouting democratic institutions and principles in order to secure the political support necessary to execute his economic agenda. “If you swim with sharks and dance with wolves, you have to befriend some of them,” says Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former minister. Weakening the KPK is one way to do it.

At first glance, this would seem at odds with what Indonesians want. Some 82% of those polled in 2019 thought democracy was the best system of government, while only 3% thought authoritarianism was acceptable “under certain circumstances”. Turnout in elections is high. Yet if the average Indonesian is asked why he loves democracy, he will not praise it as a vehicle for liberal values, but as a system for ensuring prosperity. Jokowi will console himself.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Jokowho?

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