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.
Indonesia: Defying the State, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, details how one impact of the country’s decentralisation drive has been the emergence of regional politicians willing to defy the courts for short-term political gain. Jakarta’s response has been to dither and hope the problem will go away, encouraging more insubordination.
“Allowing local officials to defy courts sends the message that the power of the majority in a region can take precedence over institutions of justice in a way that emboldens mobs and threatens minorities”, says Achmad Sukarsono, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Analyst. “It hurts the prospects of local conflict resolution and ultimately undermines Indonesia’s democracy”.
The briefing examines three cases of local defiance. In West Kotawaringin, Central Kalimantan, councillors have been defying a Constitutional Court ruling that disqualified the winner of the district’s election on grounds of vote-buying and gave the defeated incumbent a second term. The district chief currently cannot govern properly and opponents burned down his official residence. In Bogor and Bekasi in West Java, local executives, pandering to conservative Muslims, have denied permits for church construction although courts had overruled their objections. Tensions flare whenever Christians hold services at the disputed sites.
In each case, the central government failed to enforce compliance with court rulings and allowed resistance to escalate, sometimes violently. When tensions erupted to the point of attracting media attention, Jakarta sought negotiation and compromise rather than upholding constitutional principles and judicial authority. But when these efforts failed, the authority of the president and the courts was weakened.
Jakarta officials argue that relations with regions have changed. The devolution of powers to districts and cities since 1999 is a response to the more than 30 years of centralised rule of the late President Soeharto. The advent of direct local elections in 2005 made local officials even more independent of the central government.
In the short term, the central government should treat these cases as obstruction of justice and act accordingly, using a range of legal measures that are available to the president. In the longer term, it should develop the concept of contempt of court to strengthen the judicial branch of government.
“To promote a forceful role for Jakarta on these matters is not to advocate micro-management of the regions or recentralisation, but rather to strengthen democracy and ensure that local conflicts are not allowed to fester”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director.