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Don't rule out Indonesia having a president beyond two terms and a more powerful parliament

Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has claimed that he is not interested in a third term, adding that those who had floated the idea of amending the constitution to allow him a third term could only have one of three motives.

Don't rule out Indonesia having a president beyond two terms and a more powerful parliament

Mr Widodo (centre) with PDI-P chair Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice President Ma'ruf Amin.

Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has claimed that he is not interested in a third term, adding that those who had floated the idea of amending the constitution to allow him a third term could only have one of three motives.

“First, [they] want to slap my face; second, [they are] sycophants; or third, [they] only want to trap [me],” he said on Dec 2.

He added that if the proposed constitutional amendments encompassed extending the presidential term limit and ditching direct presidential election, then it might better if there was no amendment at all.

But, in reality, can Mr Widodo put a stop to any attempt at constitutional amendment?

Indonesian law makes it abundantly clear that any constitutional amendment is strictly in the domain of the legislature — in this case, the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), which meets when the country’s two parliamentary chambers, the House of Representatives and the Regional Representative Council, sit and vote together as one extended chamber.

The prerequisite to initiating an amendment procedure is satisfied when one-third of the MPR’s members agree to do so. When voting takes place, a quorum of two-thirds of the chamber must be met and only a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one is required to pass the motion.

Hence, legally speaking, the president as the head of the executive branch is in no position to intervene directly in the constitution amendment proceedings.

Mr Widodo is in a doubly weak position when it comes to parliamentary procedures because he does not control a political party. At best, he can only rely on the good graces of the party bosses. But the chances of this seems slim.

After all, a “limited constitutional amendment” to restore the MPR’s prerogatives to formulate Broad Outlines of State Policy (GBHN in Indonesian) was mandated at the recent national congress of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Mr Widodo’s chief political backer.

The GBHN was a feature of the 32-year rule of the late President Suharto. After he was forced to resign in 1998, it became essentially a five-yearly “development blueprint” that the government of the day was supposedly obliged to draft and follow.

Following a constitutional amendment, the GBHN was eventually replaced in 2004 by a law  that provides a framework for each administration to draft its own Long Term Development Plan (20 years) and Middle-Range Plan (five years).

Proponents of the GBHN argue that a blueprint passed by MPR, which was the highest legislative chamber before the 2004 constitutional amendment, would carry greater legal weight than a mere law. By implication, those who support a return to the GBHN also want restoration of MPR’s status as the highest legislature in the land.

Worse still for Mr Widodo, the momentum for constitutional amendment was also picked up by other party leaders in the ruling coalition, including Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Gerindra Party, and Surya Paloh, a media mogul and chairman of the Nasdem Party.

Both went as far as saying that they want to restore the constitution to its original 1945 version, arguing that the multiple amendments since the fall of Suharto had “betrayed its spirit” as intended by Indonesia’s Founding Fathers.  

Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of PDI-P, is another member of Indonesia’s political elite who has long called for a return to the pre-amendment version of the constitution. Interestingly, this would mean the abolition of direct presidential election, making it easier for the political elite to promote the interests of their own dynasties.

Ms Sukarnoputri is currently grooming her daughter, Puan Maharani — recently appointed Speaker of the House of Representatives — to take over her party’s reins.

Ms Maharani, like Indonesia’s other political heirs, however, lacks electoral appeal but her fortune might be different if the election were to be held within parliament.

It is not just politicians who are hankering for a return to earlier political arrangements. Earlier this month, the chairman of PBNU — Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation — Said Aqil Siroj, told the Speaker of the MPR that his organisation supported the abolition of a direct presidential election in favour of the old election mechanism by the MPR.

Mr Siroj argued that direct presidential elections had proved to be too polarising for Indonesia, causing “huge political and social costs”.

Right up to 2004, Indonesian presidents were elected by the MPR until a constitutional amendment instituted direct elections. PBNU’s proposal to abolish direct presidential election was seconded by the National Awakening Party.  

Given the increasing wave of support for a constitutional amendment among the  political elite, it is difficult to envisage how Mr Widodo could hope to derail it.

Furthermore, does he really want to, since limited amendment to the constitution may well suit his own purposes?

The president admitted that he had thought the idea of reviving GBHN appealing, probably because it could ensure the continuation of his administration’s infrastructure projects by having them enshrined within GBHN. In theory, this would necessitate the next administration to carry them through.

Without a doubt, by the time his second and last term expires in 2024, there will have been quite a few unfinished projects. Chief among them is the president’s pet project: The ambitious relocation of Indonesia’s capital city from Jakarta to Kalimantan, which could be in jeopardy under a new administration.

Consequently, either the revival of the GBHN or allowing a president to serve a third term — both of which require  a constitutional amendment — may suit Mr Widodo’s agenda. A third term would even mean he could oversee the completion of the capital city move himself.  

It is still too early to tell whether Mr Widodo is opposed to any constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek re-election as a matter of principle, or he simply feels the need to protest in a public show of self-deprecation.

Indonesian leaders have always avoided appearing to be too forward in promoting their own self-interest. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, just before the MPR convened its session to elect the president, Suharto always made a little fuss about wishing to retire.

However, because no alternative candidate was allowed to be put forward, the MPR had no choice but to re-elect him — seven times over. He would always accept it because “the people wanted (him) to carry on”.

The recent proposed amendments to the constitution, should they come to pass, would take Indonesian political settings back in time to those of the Suharto era.

The political cost of such an eventuality to Mr Widodo’s approval ratings may be small, given the fact it would be the parliament that initiates the charge.

Only time will tell if Indonesia will truly go down a backward path. If it does, it will not be too surprising to hear another Indonesian president claim that it has happened because “the people wanted it”.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya whose commentaries have appeared in the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe since the 1990s.

Related topics

Indonesia politics Joko Widodo Prabowo Subianto PDI-P

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