Indonesian president Widodo using executions to demonstrate authority

Indonesian president Widodo using executions to demonstrate authority

In the face of international reproach, the executions of Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are intended to make Joko Widodo appear decisive. More than anything, they are an attempt to regain popularity in an Indonesia that is increasingly nationalist and isolationist.

Last week’s executions of drug smugglers from the Bali Nine drug ring has caused a diplomatic crisis, with Australia withdrawing its ambassador, Paul Grigson, and a public outcry over use of capital punishment for drug offenses.

The situation, though internationally debated, is predominantly motivated by Indonesian politics and image-building for President Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’). It is unlikely that the diplomatic crisis currently unfolding will leave more than a few ripples, and only perhaps a minor dent in tourism.

Ring leaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were sentenced to execution by firing squad for drug smuggling in 2006, and last week, on April 29th, these sentences were carried out. Indonesian authorities were tipped off about the Bali Nine’s plans by Australian police in ‘06, which led to the seizure of 8.3 kg heroin, worth an estimated AUD4m, on its way from Indonesia to Australia.

Cracking down on drug smuggling has become an imperative for the Jokowi administration. Backed by highly dubious figures, the president has rallied public opinion against the smugglers and sellers, who lead youth into addiction.

Killing the “wicked” drug dealers and saving young Indonesians is a message that has echoed with the population. Pointing to foreigners as the source of evil is no novel tactic in politics, and Jokowi seems to have struck a chord when he blames the corrupting influence of foreign drug smugglers. Never mind that the executed Bali Nine-members were in fact carrying drugs out of the country; in a poll published just prior to the executions of Australians Chan and Sukumaran, 86% of the surveyed Indonesians supported the killings.

There has been frosty air between Australia and Indonesia for a long time, and since former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s official visit to Australia in 2010, it has only gone downhill. From trade crises, like Julia Gillard’s ban on beef cattle exports in 2011, to Tony Abbott’s “turn back the boats”-policy on asylum seekers in 2013, diplomatic ties between the two nations have deteriorated.

On a more ongoing basis, Australians are infamous in Indonesia, as stories of Bali tourists letting loose signify to Indonesians that some Aussies view the island nation as a party destination where regular rules of conduct do not apply. This contributes to the attitude that executing Chan and Sukumaran serves to reassert Indonesian sovereignty and shows Australia, and the rest of the world, that Indonesia will not bend to external political pressure.

The Bali Nine executions are part of a populist appeal by President Jokowi, whose standing in the eyes of Indonesians leaves room for improvement. He campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, curbing illegal drug trade, being more Indonesian and less international, and a generally tougher, cleaner kind of government than his predecessor’s.

He is perceived as being too reliant on former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, to the extent that some see him as nothing more than her puppet. The executions serve to underscore the “strong man”-strategy pursued by Jokowi, as he tries to assert himself.

Drug laws in Indonesia have been strict all along, just like in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, but rarely upheld. Only seven foreigners and no Indonesians were executed for drug offenses in the 15 years before Jokowi. Now, the president has a count of 12 foreigners and 2 Indonesians executed for drug offenses in the past year alone.

It is worth keeping in mind that Indonesia is a large and diverse country, difficult to govern and held together by patronage networks and horse-trading. Its 250m people from over 300 ethnic groups across 13,500 islands, speaking more than 700 languages, might well be any democratic leader’s worst nightmare.

Furthermore, Jokowi is head of a minority government, which affords him very few victories in the legislature, so the most he can do is maximize impact through executive power; for instance, by enforcing draconian laws over foreign criminals.

The authority-building agenda of Jokowi’s actions is further underscored by the fact that Indonesia has launched a formal appeal to prevent Indonesian Satinah Binti Jumadi Ahmad from being executed in Saudi Arabia. It appears that the sovereign right to execute foreigners violating a country’s laws only apply to certain sovereigns.

Then again, speaking of hypocrisy, it is not clear why the execution of an Australian by Indonesia is a graver problem than Indonesians being executed by Indonesia, or Australia’s other trading partners China, Japan and USA routinely executing criminals.

Australia is unlikely to do anything that might damage the economic ties to Indonesia or the cooperation around counter-terrorism and illegal immigration. Prime minister Tony Abbott recently commented: “I would say to people…you are absolutely entitled to be angry, but we’ve got to be very careful to ensure we do not allow our anger to make a bad situation worse”.

Retaliation might come in the form of cuts in aid (AUD600m p.a.) and withdrawing support from Indonesia’s positions in the UN and G20, but a more dramatic reaction is not particularly probable at this time. Chinese business interests are poised to pick up the slack and win the rights to infrastructure projects in Jakarta, should Australian companies withdraw from doing business in Indonesia. This would hurt Australia more than Indonesia.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Mikala Sorenson

Mikala Sorensen is an Economist with regional expertise in Europe. She holds a first class honours degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of York and a Masters in Economics from the University of Copenhagen. Having interned at the Danish OECD-delegation in Paris and currently working at the Danish Ministry of Finance, she specialises in politics and macroeconomics. Analysis for GRI is an expression of her own views.