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Widodo needs to fix Indonesia's growing democratic deficit

Plans to move capital distract from addressing the nation's core problem

| Indonesia
Joko Widodo could better use his power to help turn Indonesia into a full-fledged democracy.   © Reuters

Six months after Indonesia's national election, President Joko Widodo will finally be inaugurated for his second term on October 20, but he has already been working on burnishing his historical legacy by embarking on plans to move the capital from Jakarta.

After he won the April 17 election with a 56% vote and massive support from political parties, Widodo has never been stronger. With no reelection worries since the constitution limits his rule to two consecutive five-year terms, he can drop populist promises and push any policy with little opposition.

For any leader, this would present a rare opportunity to address urgent and sensitive problems that have not been tackled for fear of losing popularity.

Yet Widodo seems to have chosen to spend his enormous political capital on moving the seat of government out of crowded Java to sparsely populated Borneo. He has selected a largely forested area in East Kalimantan province as the new site and puts the cost of moving at 466 trillion rupiah ($33 billion). He wants to finish the project by the end of his presidency in 2024.

The announcement caught the nation by surprise, although there has been little open opposition, given his popularity. But serious questions must be asked whether moving the capital amounts to a vanity project. Widodo could better use his power to help turn Indonesia into a full-fledged democracy.

Despite recently holding its fifth free and fair general election since the 1998 fall of the Suharto regime, Indonesia remains an illiberal democracy by international standards. Many freedoms and human rights are not fully upheld.

There is growing intolerance, accompanied by vigilantism, aimed at religious minorities and the LGBT+ community. The country's human rights record is weak. In August, massive protests erupted in Papua, triggered by claims that its citizens are victims of racism in the rest of the country. The protesters even called for declaring independence from Indonesia.

Although many of these problems were inherited from past administrations, things have deteriorated under Widodo's watch.

His record in protecting human rights and freedoms has been a disappointment. Those who believe that Widodo failed to deliver on promises to improve civil rights when he was first elected in 2014 nonetheless voted for him in the April elections since his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, has an even worse human rights record from his time as a senior army commander in the 1990s.

Fixing some of these problems would mean upsetting conservative Muslims, a key constituency that Widodo tried to woo in the last election by selecting the Muslim scholar Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate. But this choice has raised concerns about the character of Widodo's second term.

Widodo would make a grave mistake in giving conservative Muslims a free rein in setting the national agenda at the expense of religious minorities, who make up 12% of the population.

The persecution of the Shia and Ahmadiyah communities, which are considered deviant Muslim groups by Sunni Muslims, shows how conservative Muslims were able to push their agenda under Widodo's first term. The forced closures of some Christian churches, many in the Jakarta region, are another example.

Anti-Chinese sentiment reared its ugly head during the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017 when the incumbent Basuki "Ahok" Purnama -- ethnically Chinese and a Christian -- lost to his opponent, Anies Baswedan, who played on religious and racial prejudices in his campaign.

Criticism of the LGBT+ community has spread since the minister of research and higher education in 2017 banned state universities from providing student counseling to them.

The jailing of opposition critics on alleged grounds of spreading hate through social media is undermining free speech.

Many of these actions have been accompanied by violent vigilante attacks conducted in the name of protecting Islam and often carried out in the presence of the police.

One indication of the growing influence of conservative Muslims is a proposed new penal code, finalized by a parliamentary task force last week, that would criminalize sex outside marriage and homosexuality, while placing limits on various civil rights. Even criticizing the president could send you to jail.

Widodo has halted the bill's deliberation at the eleventh hour, but it remains to be seen whether he has the power or the will to protect these rights. The new members of parliament, who will be inaugurated on October 1, will be as conservative and will push the bill into law in its current format.

Addressing these and many other issues does not require much money, but it does require Widodo to show consistent personal commitment and leadership. He needs to turn the police into a strong and credible law enforcement agency to protect all citizens. His oath of office obliges him to protect the freedoms and rights of all. Voters have put their faith in him to make good on this pledge in the next five years.

Indonesia takes pride in its diversity, reflected in the country's motto, "Unity in Diversity." But unless Widodo starts fixing the democratic deficit, he will find an Indonesia fractured along religious and ethnic lines. That is hardly the legacy he wants for Indonesia when he leaves the political stage in 2024.

Endy M. Bayuni is a senior editor at the Jakarta Post.

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