As many Indonesians turn their attention to the potential criminalization of sexual acts between homosexuals and extramarital sex in the nation’s revised criminal code, its House of Representatives has quietly passed another controversial but less publicized piece of legislation: the revised Law on Representative Assemblies, known as the MD3 law, which critics say will hamper criticism of Indonesian politicians and reduce their accountability.
The law, if approved by the president, will allow parliament representatives to press charges against those who “undermine its honor or that of its members.” It also stipulates that investigations into members of parliament must be approved by the House Ethics Council. A primary target of the new law will likely be the KPK, Indonesia’s beleaguered corruption eradication commission.
An online petition to counter the amendments from groups like Indonesia Corruption Watch and the Association for Elections and Democracy has gathered more than 170,000 signatures, but the amendments can likely only be overturned by a Constitutional Court ruling. The amendments were also supported by eight political parties, including the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Jokowi tweeted on Wednesday night that “The draft of the MD3 Law is on my desk, but I have not signed it yet. I understand the unrest in society about this. We all want the quality of our democracy to increase, not to decrease.”
The PDIP could not be immediately reached for comment. Its members have been publicly advocating for the speedy passage of MD3 for months.
The United Development Party (PPP) and National Democratic (NasDem) party protested the proposal with a walkout, but they were outvoted.
“Indonesia’s parliament is one of the least trusted state institutions,” said Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. “It does not help that they passed such a repressive law. It’s going to create more and more problems in Indonesia.”
The uproar over the proposed criminal code revisions may have distracted public attention from the anti-democratic impact of the MD3 amendments, said Ian Wilson, a politics researcher at Murdoch University in Australia.
“The polarizing debate around the social and moral implications of the RKUHP provided a distraction from greater scrutiny of the other packets of legislation, including the MD3 law, and consumed the energies of watchdog and civil society advocacy groups,” said Wilson. “It’s safe to assume the timing was at least partially intentional. The most controversial elements of the MD3 law are also relatively well ‘hidden’ within the broader legislative packet. It’s a fairly well practiced stratagem in Indonesia.”
Last week, the Forum on Law and Constitutional Studies (FKHK) filed a petition against the MD3 Law to the Constitutional Court, arguing that articles like summoning citizens by force are not in line with the Indonesian constitution.
“The main way to oppose this measure is through the Constitutional Court,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a defense lecturer at General Achmad Yani University. “But I’m not sure how much the Constitutional Court is willing to strike this down, because it had such broad support across parties. Plus, we’re going into an election year and they may not want to rock the boat.”
“The other way [to resist], which is more difficult, would be for citizens to organize, and keep getting arrested,” said Sulaiman. “If they keep resisting, they can see how far Parliament is willing to push enforcement of the law.”
Insulation from criticism
“Most politicians [around the world] know that they should have thick skin. Not in Jakarta,” said Harsono. In recent years, many citizens have faced legal troubles after criticizing politicians on social media.
“The House is just a bunch of people who are really proud and sure of themselves,” said Sulaiman. “Of course this will be a way for them to attack their critics.”
On top of that, he said, the House has been getting antsy over increased pressure from the KPK, which scored a major coup last year by managing to get the improbably corrupt Speaker of the House, Setya Novanto [he has been implicated in at least eight different cases] into their custody. “It is kind of difficult to say who the exact targets will be,” said Sulaiman, although the KPK seems like a leading contender. “It is worded very ambiguously, in typical Indonesian style.”
The MD3 law can be seen as an attempt by the House to consolidate its power while public opinion of it is at a historic low.
“The MD3 law is quite extraordinary in the extent to which it grants the DPR powers comparable to, and even exceeding, that of the judiciary; a kind of parallel system of sorts,” said Wilson. “The justification given that it is intended to protect the good name of the parliament from inappropriate name-calling makes little sense in the current political climate, and will undoubtedly increaser the public perception of it as a self-serving institution.”
Wilson suggested that undermining public confidence in the parliamentary system in this way might even increase the appeal of democratic “alternatives,” including Islamists.
Indonesian journalists have also expressed dismay over the amendments, which will further diminish their already curtailed press freedoms.
"Members of Parliament can certainly argue that the amendments have no intention of targeting journalists. But no one can guarantee that in its implementation," said Abdul Manan, head of the Alliance of Independent Journalists. "The subjective nature of the wording means that journalists can easily be ensnared for doing their job, and the law can become another tool with which to suppress or intimidate the press."