By Kate Lamb
(Reuters) – Some senior political figures in Indonesia have backed the idea of extending President Joko Widodo’s tenure beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, sparking heated debate in the world’s third-largest democracy.
Recent comments by influential minister Luhut Pandjaitan, who argues a majority of Indonesians support the idea, have further fuelled concerns about a threat to hard-won democratic reforms two decades after strongman president Suharto was forced out of office.
WHAT IS THE PROPOSAL BEING FLOATED?
Citing the need for economic recovery, several politicians have expressed support for extending the president’s time in office, either by delaying the 2024 election, or amending the constitution to remove the two-term limit.
Investment minister Bahlil Lahadalia, economics minister Airlangga Hartarto, National Awakening Party head Muhaimin Iskandar, and Luhut are among those that have raised the idea.
Interviewed on a podcast at the weekend, Luhut said ‘big data’ on social media showed a majority of Indonesians support extending the president’s term.
“My personal opinion, I feel like it will be better. If he (the president) gets an extension…just once.”
Supporters of the idea say the president needs more time to oversee economic recovery and implement his agenda, including his ambitious $32 billion capital city relocation plan, which has been disrupted by the pandemic.
WHY IS THE IDEA CONTROVERSIAL?
After more than three decades of authoritarian rule that ended with Suharto’s fall in 1998, the idea of extending the presidential term limit has raised fears among critics that democratic reforms could be swiftly undone.
In an opinion piece in The Jakarta Post on March 7, senior editor Endy Bayuni described the political angling as dangerously subversive, and if allowed to develop a “sure recipe for the end of democracy”.
Political analysts and academics worry that a constitutional amendment, which would be required to extend the presidential term limit, could set a precedent and open up a Pandora’s box of other constitutional changes.
WHAT IS THE PRESIDENT’S VIEW?
Initially the president, commonly known as Jokowi, rejected the plan, describing it as “a slap in the face”.
More recently he has said he will abide by the constitution and that “everyone in a democracy is entitled to an opinion”.
The president’s senior advisors have denied a third term is on his agenda, but analysts suggest some elites are testing the waters by floating the proposal.
While Jokowi has a high approval rating, a recent poll by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) showed that 70% of respondents reject the third-term idea.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES AN EXTENSION WILL BE APPROVED?
Passing a constitutional amendment would require a majority vote in a joint session of the country’s legislative chambers.
The Jokowi government controls more than 80% of seats in the House of Representatives, but the political party he represents has rejected the extension, as have several others, making the chances of passing such an amendment difficult but not impossible, say analysts.
A significant political deal would be needed to facilitate it, but the fact that some political figures continue to raise it suggests the proposal is not dead in the water just yet.
Jokowi’s election in 2014 was hailed as a democratic triumph given his clean, ‘man of the people’ image and perceived lack of ties to the country’s military and political elite, but some observers have noted an illiberal trend in his government since.
Political analyst Johannes Nugroho said past constitutional amendments, such as bringing in direct elections and term limits, were intended to prevent any abuse of power by leaders.
“Rolling back such progressive amendments would definitely signal further illiberalisation,” he said.
(Reporting by Kate Lamb in Sydney; Additional reporting by Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; Editing by Ed Davies)