Protesting students urge clarity on presidential term bid

Large groups of students staged rallies in major cities in Indonesia this week opposing reported plans to try to extend President Joko Widodo’s time in office beyond its two-term limit, demanding lower prices for basic commodities, as well as the revocation of the president’s project to build a new capital city.

The escalating geopolitical crisis due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has aggravated inflationary pressures in Indonesia and caused rising global commodity prices, particularly of energy and food.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons on Monday 11 April to disperse hundreds of university students outside the parliament in the capital Jakarta. Rallies also took place in Medan, North Sumatra; Bandung, West Java; Yogyakarta, Central Java; Surabaya, East Java; and Makassar, South Sulawesi for several days last week in what were the most widespread student demonstrations since Jokowi, as Joko Widodo is commonly known, came to power in 2014.

In Cirebon, West Java, students blocked the North Coast inter-provincial road, stopping the supply of goods to and from Central and East Java. Police managed to reopen the vital routes after two hours.

In Jakarta, thousands of students marched to the House of Representatives building, demanding the house turn down any plan to postpone elections or amend the legal basis to allow the president a third term.

Students believe Jokowi’s tenure will be extended by changing the constitution or delaying elections scheduled for 2024, as mooted by influential Jokowi supporters who have argued he needs more time to deal with the economic crisis and build the new capital city in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Ujang Komarudin, senior lecturer at Al-Azhar University of Indonesia, said the students continue to stage demonstrations because they do not see a sufficiently definitive stance from Jokowi on the issue of extending the president’s term of office.

“If he states boldly that there will be no amendment on the constitution and that he will not run for another term, then this noise will soon be over,” he told University World News.

This was confirmed by Bayu Satria Utomo, the chairperson of the Jakarta Student Executive Body (BEM), who said: “We will continue take to the streets until President Jokowi says clearly and loudly that he will not go for another presidential term and will not postpone the election.”

Students march to the state palace

On 11 April a group of students marched to the presidential palace to try to meet Jokowi but were stranded a few kilometres away due to a heavy security presence, resulting in huge traffic jams. Unable to advance further, the students gathered at Patung Kuda roundabout, some three kilometres from the palace, making speeches from an open car.

Using a megaphone, representatives of Limajaya, the Indonesian acronym for a coalition of Jakarta student unions, read out a statement: “We are called on to convey to the government what the people think and feel about the current situation. People do not have their basic right to affordable food, fuel and other basic necessities.

“We want the government to bring down the prices of basic commodities to affordable rates; not to increase fuel prices; revoke the new capital city plan; and run the [presidential] election as scheduled.”

Prices of basic necessities such as eggs, sugar and cooking oil have soared to unaffordable levels over the past two months, with severe shortages of some items. Business analysts have accused large distributors of keeping commodities unsold to push prices even higher.

Similar demands were voiced by students in the House of Representatives compound.

“We want parliament to not be unfaithful to our constitution which clearly limits the president’s term of office to two periods,” student spokesperson Luthfi Yufrizal said on Monday.

Monday’s rally at parliament turned ugly when several demonstrators physically attacked Ade Armando, a popular social and political analyst and an associate professor at the University of Indonesia. Armando, a controversial figure, is known as a Jokowi loyalist.

While Armando was talking to the media, saying he was there to support students who voice their opposition to a planned extension of Jokowi’s term, several demonstrators shouted: “You are a big hypocrite! Sycophant! Get out of here!”

A demonstrator hit him in the face. Others followed with a barrage of punches. The angry mob pulled off Armando’s trousers while he was on the ground. He was saved from further mistreatment when the police arrived and was taken to hospital.

‘No delay in elections’

In an attempt to defuse the situation, Deputy Speaker of the House Sufmi Dasco Ahmad and National Police Chief General Listyo Sigit met with students in the house compound on Monday. Dasco said the house guaranteed the election would take place “as the constitution stipulates”.

“There will be no postponement [or] delay whatsoever of the upcoming election,” he said, standing on an open-topped police truck.

“We accept your demand and guarantee that the election will take place as scheduled. We will even appoint new members of the Election Commission [KPU] tomorrow [12 April],” he promised.

It must be noted that Jokowi has said publicly that the presidential election would go ahead. Addressing a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Bogor, West Java, just a day before the 11 April student rallies, Jokowi told his ministers to inform the public that the dates for the presidential election and regional elections had been firmly fixed.

“The [presidential] election will take place on 14 February 2024 and regional elections in November 2024. This is already clearly scheduled and the public should be informed in order to avoid speculation that the government will postpone the election and is trying to extend the presidential term of office,” Jokowi said.

But analysts note that the president’s statements on extending his term of office have changed from total rejection to “I will stick to the constitution”.

“The problem is, if the constitution is changed if the House amends it to allow the third term, then Jokowi’s statement that he sticks to the constitution can mean he is ready for the next term,” said Hadar Nafis Gumay, executive director of the Network for Democracy and Electoral Integrity (Netgrit), pointing to “tricks to extend the presidential term of office”.

Distrust comes in part from the fact that the National Awakening Party (PKB) on 2 March, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) on 20 March, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P – Jokowi’s party) on 31 March each proposed amendments to the constitution to allow a third term, but this is still to be taken up in parliament.

Grassroots support

In a show of grassroots support at a ‘National Gathering’ of village heads in Jakarta on 19 March, village leaders from throughout the country who form the Village Administration Association (APDESI) said they wanted Jokowi to continue for another term, according to a statement issued afterwards.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, responded positively to the APDESI statement, saying: “If the people want it [Jokowi’s third term], the house will listen and have a special session on it. If the majority agree, the president’s third term will become legal and constitutional.”

Jokowi has tried to defuse the unrest by tackling some of the economic pressures. He ordered the trade and economics ministers to take necessary measures to curb rising commodity prices and ensure the availability of basic commodities, especially during the ongoing holy month of Ramadan.

“Our responses, our policies and our statements must reflect the sense of crisis. We must empathise with the people’s burden,” the president said in remarks to a 5 April plenary cabinet session at the State Palace.

As part of efforts to deal with the worsening economic problem at home, Jokowi launched a cash assistance programme called the Family Hope Programme (PKH) that includes the distribution of cooking oil.