Maria Catarina Sumarsih’s world crumbled on November 13, 1998, when she received news that Indonesian soldiers had killed her son on his university campus, nearly six months after the end of a 32-year dictatorship ushered in a period of democratic reform.
Sumarsih’s son, Bernardus Realino Norma Irawan, 20, had been part of a nationwide student-led movement protesting against a special session of the Indonesian parliament, the first assembly held in the country after military strongman Suharto resigned as president in May 1998.
Bernadus, also known as Wawan, had joined other student protesters in the grounds of Atma Jaya University in Jakarta, as they voiced their distrust of Suharto’s successor BJ Habibie and called for an end to the military’s non-elected representation in parliament.
Armed soldiers fired in response, killing 17 people – including Wawan – and wounding more than 400 others in a riot that became known as the Semanggi I tragedy. Four students from Trisakti University had died during a demonstration six months earlier demanding Suharto quit.
The shootings added to a series of riots, lootings and rapes, including those targeting at Chinese-Indonesians, that characterised the beginning of Indonesia’s Reformasi, a period that saw a greater push for a stronger democracy and more open sociopolitical climate in the world’s fourth-most populous nation after the end of Suharto’s New Order regime.
The Reformasi movement had six goals, including bringing Suharto and his cronies to court, amending the 1945 constitution, widening regional autonomy, removing the dual functions of the Indonesian Armed Forces, eradicating corruption and enforcing the rule of law.
“In the name of my love to Wawan, I vowed to continue his and his friends’ fight, particularly in [pushing for] one of Reformasi’s goals, which is enforcing the rule of law,” said Sumarsih, now 70. “So far we have failed to bring the six Reformasi objectives into reality.”
Sumarsih is not alone in thinking that democracy in Indonesia, 25 years after Reformasi, has taken a back seat under President Joko Widodo, its decline capped by the passing of a new penal code in December that could be used to stifle dissent and freedom of speech and expression.
“At the beginning of the development of democracy, many things improved … but in the last few years we saw that there have been setbacks in several aspects, from the weakening of democratic institutions to the narrowing of space for civil liberties,” said Titi Anggraini, a member of the board of supervisors at Jakarta-based independent NGO The Association for Elections and Democracy.
“Freedoms of association and expression, as well as law enforcement and corruption, are experiencing setbacks.”
Greater regional autonomy has allowed corruption to remain pervasive in every layer of bureaucracy, as political elites continue to consolidate power to maintain the status quo. Pluralism remains under attack from religious fundamentalism, stoked by politicians in every election cycle.
“There’s a consensus now among comparative analysts and country experts, both based in and outside Indonesia, that the quality of democracy has deteriorated markedly over the course of the Jokowi presidency,” said Eve Warburton, research fellow and director of the Indonesia Institute at the Australian National University (ANU), referring to Widodo by his nickname.
A highlight of Indonesian democracy is the right of the country’s 270 million people to vote in direct elections, which are held every five years. Presidents can serve two terms. Extending Widodo’s leadership, an idea floated by some of his allies, has thus faced strong public resistance.
“It’s important to acknowledge that Indonesia’s democracy passed two important ‘stress tests’ recently, with efforts to do away with term limits and delay the elections ultimately abandoned by elites,” Warburton said.
“Popular support for electoral democracy and elite power-sharing priorities appear to have protected these pillars of Indonesia’s democracy, and that’s crucial.”
The new criminal code, however, represents a fresh test for Indonesian democracy. Under this law, insulting the president and vice-president is an offence punishable by up to three years in jail, while protests without permits – a regular occurrence in Jakarta and other big cities – are now outlawed.
In a sign of increased conservatism, the new penal code also bans extramarital sex and non-marital cohabitation. The Electronic Information and Transactions Law, which contains several vague provisions, remains prone to abuse by politicians eager to accuse their critics of defamation, hate speech and hoaxes.
The blasphemy law has been expanded from one to six articles, including a ban on apostasy, or the abandonment of religious belief. Religious majoritarianism is also rising, as highlighted by numerous discriminatory regional laws that, for example, mandate that non-Muslim girls and women who are students or municipal workers wear the hijab in the school and workplace.
“There are 64 obligatory hijab regulations [on a regional level] so that women’s sovereignty in choosing clothes is violated,” said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Harsono urged Indonesia to get rid of these laws as “they undermine the substance of democracy”.
Before Reformasi, corruption went largely unchecked under Suharto’s rule, seeping into various branches of the government at both national and regional levels. Suharto’s family was believed to have embezzled up to US$35 billion during his misrule, according to a 2004 report by the German anti-corruption NGO Transparency International.
The group’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Indonesia 110th out of 180 countries, down from 96th in 2021, marking the country’s “most drastic decline since 1995” when the index was first published.
Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, or KPK, last year arrested 34 regional heads in sting operations, charging them with various corruption-related offences. Two Supreme Court justices were also arrested for allegedly accepting bribes from a businessman in a case that involved a failing loan cooperative.
Earlier this month, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mohammad Mahfud MD said he had set up a special task force to look into suspicious financial transactions worth a whopping 349 trillion rupiah (US$23.7 billion), allegedly carried out for years by ministry of finance staff in a money-laundering scheme.
But Widodo himself has played a role in undermining Indonesia’s fight against corruption. In 2019 his administration passed a law that required KPK to be overseen by a supervisory board appointed by the government, effectively crippling the institution’s independence. Some of its best-known investigators were sacked in 2021 after they were deemed not nationalist enough to work for the state.
Old guard going strong
A quarter century on, Suharto-era elites remain as influential today as they were during the New Order. No one has been held accountable for the 1998 shootings, even as Widodo earlier this year expressed his “deep regret” over 12 major human rights violations occurring between 1965 and 2003. Jakarta aims to resolve the tragedies in a non-judicial way, essentially turning down years of pleas by the victims to bring the perpetrators to court.
The list of still-influential old guard includes Wiranto, who was Suharto’s top general during the turmoil in the late 1990s and has been accused of crimes against humanity in East Timor. Widodo appointed him as coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs for his first-term cabinet, and he now serves as chair of Widodo’s advisory council.
Other military top brass in the Suharto era who have become Widodo’s loyalists include Luhut Pandjaitan, the current minister of maritime and investment affairs who is also in charge of boosting Chinese investment, and Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s special forces general and former son-in-law.
Prabowo contested the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections before joining Widodo’s cabinet as defence minister in 2019. In August, Prabowo announced his decision to run again in next year’s race, and has been pictured in recent months accompanying Widodo on several of his regional visits.
Wiranto and Prabowo established their own political parties in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
“Scholars have long pointed to the sustained influence of Suharto-era elites as a major problem for Indonesia’s democracy and political economy,” Warburton of ANU said.
“While patterns of corruption and clientelism are different today than under the New Order, there are obvious similarities both in terms of the individuals in power, and also their modes of governing.”
Sumarsih regards Widodo as having betrayed the ideals of the Reformasi, in particular the lack of enforcement of the rule of law.
“In 2014, I joined the campaign to vote for Jokowi as I saw him as a man of reform,” she said. “Then in 2016 he installed Wiranto as his minister. I abstained from voting in 2019, and will abstain again in 2024.”