Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Oversight Needed to Make Police Accountable
Oversight Needed to Make Police Accountable
Briefing 138 / Asia

Indonesia: Defying the State

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono needs to act more firmly against institutions and officials that defy national court rulings or his inaction risks prolonging local conflicts.

I. Overview

Local institutions in Indonesia, empowered by decentralisation, are defying the country’s highest courts with impunity, undermining judicial authority and allowing local conflicts to fester. District councils, mayors and regional election commissions have learned that there is little cost to ignoring court rulings on electoral or religious disputes, pandering instead to local constituencies and pressure groups. Decisive leadership from the president could make a difference; instead, slow and ineffective responses from Jakarta brew more insubordination. If the regions become overconfident in their new powers and the central state continues to respond weakly, this lack of commitment to rule of law could encourage more conflict as the national political temperature rises ahead of the 2014 presidential election.

The problem of local officials defying the courts is a direct result of two steps taken by Indonesia in its post-1998 drive toward democratisation. One was its “big bang” decentralisation in 1999 that devolved political and fiscal power down to sub-provincial units: districts (kabupaten) and cities/municipalities (kota). The second was the introduction in 2005 of direct elections for local executives, including district heads (bupati) and mayors (walikota). Both were essential for the consolidation of Indonesian democracy, but the combination has made for a very powerful stratum of local authorities which feel neither beholden to the central government nor always compelled to comply with rulings from the nation’s top two courts.

The Supreme Court (Mahkamah Agung) is the court of final appeal for most civil and criminal cases; it also hears appeals on cases decided by the state administrative courts (Pengadilan Tata Usaha Negara), which rule on complaints against decisions taken by state officials or institutions. The Constitutional Court (Mahkamah Konstitusi) since 2008 has become the sole arbiter of election results that are disputed at the local level. The Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court are equals; decisions of both are final and binding. But a clear policy is missing on how those rulings should be enforced or an obvious penalty for failing to comply.

Three cases illustrate the point. In West Kotawaringin district, Central Kalimantan province, the Constitutional Court in July 2010 disqualified the winner of the district’s local election on vote-buying allegations and ruled that the defeated incumbent should get a second term. It may have been a questionable decision, but for the sake of reinforcing judicial authority, it should have been enforced. The local district council, however, saw the ruling as an intrusion by Jakarta in a local race and refused to accept it. More than two years later, the bupati who was awarded the victory by the court still cannot govern because of local resistance. In Bogor city and Bekasi district in West Java province, local officials have refused to allow the construction of churches despite court rulings that there were no grounds for sealing off the disputed building sites.

In all three cases, as tensions left unresolved by the rulings threatened to – and occasionally did – erupt into violence, the best the central government could do was to send an official to try and negotiate a compromise between contending parties and even then, Jakarta only reacted when the dispute made national headlines.

But if courts are to have any authority at all, the president, as chief executive, needs to do more than urge compromise. He has other tools at his disposal: issuing presidential decrees; withholding funds from local authorities; direct personal lobbying and making strategic use of the media. Allowing local officials to defy the courts is not just hurting the prospects of local conflict resolution. It sends the message that the power of the majority can take precedence over institutions of justice in a way that emboldens mobs, threatens minorities that feel they cannot depend on the state for protection, and ultimately undermines Indonesia’s democracy.

Jakarta/Brussels, 30 August 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Oversight Needed to Make Police Accountable

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe

Indonesia urgently needs a competent civilian body that can police the police and show that there are tangible consequences to refusal to enforce the law or in some cases, actively violate it.

Those with the authority to hold the police accountable, including the president, seem to lack the political will to do so; civil society groups appalled by police behavior have so far been unsuccessful in pressing for change. If Indonesian democracy is going to move forward, it is up to these groups to make a concerted effort to press the president and House of Representatives to bring a civilian oversight body into being.

The standoff with former chief detective Susno Duadji is a case in point. On April 24, West Java Police, together with a political party militia linked to a former justice minister, prevented prosecutors from taking Susno from his luxury house to prison after he lost all appeals against a bribery conviction. Susno was once head of the West Java command, one of the largest regional police units in Indonesia, and many officers there still owe their careers to him. It was clearly more important for top officers to protect the culture of patronage than to enforce the law.

This is not the first time the police have braved public scorn to protect one of their own. Last year, police blocked the anti-corruption commission from investigating the alleged corruption of Djoko Susilo, an active general who once led the lucrative traffic division. He is currently on trial after public uproar, presidential intervention and the discovery of a number of mansions under the names of his multiple wives.

Polls show high distrust of the police. Kompas newspaper last year found that 72.9 percent of respondents thought police would not touch the rich or powerful. In 2011, a survey by human rights group Imparsial revealed that 74.8 percent of those polled associated the police with corruption.

Why are the Indonesian police so tone-deaf to public opinion instead of working to build public trust?

Crisis Group analyzed this problem last year in a report titled The Deadly Cost of Poor Policing. One answer is that police see the post-1999 reforms in terms of structure, not institutional culture. The public may see reform in terms of increased competency, honesty and humanity. Those inside the institution are more focused on sustaining the new privileges, opportunities and powers that reform has brought about.

The 1999 divorce from the armed forces gave police authority over internal security after decades of playing junior partner to the army. But no thought was given to how this newly empowered force would be supervised. The 2002 police law gave it a direct reporting line to the president rather than placing it under a ministry and created a National Police Commission that ended up largely toothless because it can only provide advice to the president, rather than having powers to investigate, subpoena or censure. Since then,  attempts, including a 2007 draft of  the national security bill, to put police under the Home Affairs or Justice Ministry have hit the wall of entrenched police opposition that parliamentarians seem loathe to challenge.

Immune from external supervision that could hold wrongdoers accountable, the police can continue to distribute the increasing spoils of the reform without disruption. A reasonable livelihood is guaranteed as long as members are loyal to the internal norms. In the absence of credible performance-based reviews and an incentive structure that rewards professionalism and punishes incompetence, officers find that their promotions, educational opportunities and access to additional funds depend on relationships inside the force, especially with direct superiors. Deference trumps competence and initiative every time.

This does not mean that civil society should stop complaining about police shortcomings. Public pressure can make a difference. In October 2012, the police in Lampung failed to stop a deadly eruption of inter-ethnic violence when they should have anticipated trouble. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was slow to respond but in the face of public anger, the Lampung Police chief was forced to apologize and saw his scheduled promotion canceled.  Last month, when the Yogyakarta Police failed to protect murder suspects from being executed by soldiers in their cell, Yudhoyono again faced pressure to act, and the Yogyakarta Police chief was replaced. In both cases, the police denied that public uproar had sparked the decisions but events hinted otherwise.

Accountability must be institutionalized, however. It is insufficient to hope that media coverage and public advocacy will force a president to act or a police force effectively to control its own behavior. Indonesia must revisit the idea of a civilian oversight commission with real clout. This will require a new law, and public pressure could help bring it about. It may be the only way to ensure that reform means professionalism rather than patronage.