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Jokowi makes a political spectacle of executions

Jokowi makes a political spectacle of executions

It's hard to believe that just four months after President Jokowi swept to power on a wave of disillusionment with Indonesia's politics, his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is now openly displaying schadenfreude. 

President Jokowi's disastrous handling of the appointment of a new police chief, and his paralysis once his nomination triggered an all-out conflict between the national police (Polri) and the anti-corruption commission (KPK) after the KPK named Jokowi's nominee a corruption suspect, gave Yudhoyono his chance.

Yudhoyono was hardly known for his management of KPK-Polri infighting; he drew stern criticism for his belated intervention to support the KPK in two previous bouts with the police in 2012 and 2009. But as the crisis Jokowi created for himself rolled on towards its second month, SBY gleefully took the chance to advise Jokowi via Twitter that the problem had an obvious solution:

'@SBYudhoyono: I judge this problem is not very complicated and there is a ready solution. I also convinced President Jokowi will be able to overcome it. *SBY*'

'@SBYudhoyono: Although many people have asked me, it's better that I don't meet Jokowi. It could give rise to suspicion: "intervening and influencing". *SBY*'

Jokowi finally made a clear decision in response to the crisis yesterday, cancelling his compromised nominee and temporarily replacing two KPK commissioners made suspects by the police in apparent trumped-up revenge prosecutions. [fold]

Jokowi's actions are unlikely to deny SBY further opportunities for schadenfreude: his new police chief nominee faces similar corruption allegations, the parliament could well use his confirmation hearing to score further political points against Jokowi, and suspending the KPK commissioners, although required by law, gives a green light to the police to file more spurious charges in future if the KPK dares to challenge them again.

No less unexpected than SBY's personal schadenfreude has been the chance for his former law and human rights minister, Amir Syamsuddin, to criticse Jokowi over narcotics executions. Yudhoyono's government was guilty of a hypocritical u-turn on the death penalty in 2013 when it first cited Indonesia's advocacy for its citizens on death row abroad to justify softening the country's stance on the death penalty for narcotics crime during a four-and-a-half year informal moratorium on executions. The Government then resumed executions soon after, despite continuing this advocacy.

Syamsuddin's beef is the way that Jokowi's government has made a spectacle of executions. 'By publicising the names of the people to be executed on a grand scale, it's as if the reportage can be enjoyed as a show and a spectacle of the government's grandeur,' Syamsuddin told the press

Syamsuddin has a point. One of the most distasteful features of Jokowi's execution of six narcotics criminals has been the President's drive to maximise the political advantage he gains from the killings.

Jokowi has repeatedly told Indonesians the country faces a drugs crisis, using discredited statistics to claim 50 Indonesians die from narcotics every day. Against this backdrop, Jokowi's 'no mercy for drugs convicts' stance (stated repeatedly in public engagements across the country) and his sharp escalation of Indonesia's use of executions have been a shortcut for him to appear to be a firm leader.

Ironically, Jokowi's tactics resemble nothing so much as the campaign strategy of his defeated presidential rival, authoritarian-era general Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo too made liberal use of dodgy numbers during the election campaign to claim Indonesia was under threat of recolonisation as its wealth leaked overseas, then presented his pitch of firm leadership as crucial to saving Indonesia

Some of Jokowi's public addresses on the death penalty have even resembled campaign stump speeches in their format. Inaugurating a new mosque in Kalimantan just two days after the January executions, for example, Jokowi bantered with the crowd by seeking affirmation of his stance, as depicted in this translated excerpt from an Indonesian news report:

'Just imagine, 18,000 dying each year, every day 50 people, so the other day six people were executed. Everyone agrees right?,' said Jokowi

'[We] Agree...‎' said the people in unison. 

'I'm sure everyone agrees,' Jokowi replied. 

Jokowi has also taken the opportunity to present himself as a firm leader against intensified international protests: 'Although there's a great amount of pressure and urging from overseas (I'll continue with executions). Because I'm used to being pressured, I consider it commonplace.' 

Not everyone is convinced Jokowi is executing people out of concern for his image. Jarrah Sastrawan argues in New Matilda that Jokowi is motivated by personal conviction: he is morally conservative and a firm believer in state power.

It is refreshing to see someone argue that a politician, and a populist at that, is acting out of deeply held personal convictions. But even if Jokowi holds the views that Sastrawan suggests, that does not mean they have been his primary or sole motivation in his push to execute all narcotics convicts on Indonesia's death row. The showy populism of Jokowi and his cabinet has been an unmissable feature of his early months in power. His manpower minister gained acclaim for scaling a fence in order to inspect a migrant worker dormitory when staff refused to let him in. His fisheries minister has shot to popularity by offering to lend her airline's aircraft to bomb vessels fishing illegally in Indonesian waters , and by presiding over the widely publicised scuttling of illegal fishing vessels with explosives .

In this context, the criticisms of SBY's former minister look spot on. Whatever Jokowi's views on state power and the death penalty, he has made a spectacle of executions for political gain.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kreshna Aditya 2012.

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