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Indonesia: Rule of Law Reform Proposed

(Dec. 6, 2016) On October 11, 2016, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo announced an overhaul of the legal system, with the aim of ending corruption and improving rule of law.  He called for far-reaching legal reform to improve service to the public and reduce distrust.  He also said that a strong legal system is “crucial for a country to compete at the regional level.  There are no more options, we must immediately carry out substantial legal reform from the highest to the lowest [levels].”  (Ina Parlina & Ayomi Amindoni, Jokowi Means Business with Extensive Legal Reform, JAKARTA POST (Oct. 12, 2016).) Presidential spokesman Johan Budi said, moreover, that improved public service is also a goal of the reforms.  (Id.)


The President, who is often called Jokowi for short, noted that “the goal of being a state of justice has not been reached, neither by the state administration, nor in the social life.  Our law is stern towards the lower classes, but becomes blurred as it reaches the top.”  (Massive Legal Reforms Needed for Indonesia to Become a State of Law: Jokowi, JAKARTA GLOBE (Oct. 11, 2016).)

Indonesia has long had a problem with endemic corruption, although it is not considered to be among the worst countries for the problem.  Jokowi cited the global corruption perception index, published by Transparency International, that ranked Indonesia as 88th among the 168 countries surveyed in 2015.  (Id.; Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, Transparency International website (last visited Nov. 29, 2016) (click on Indonesia on the map to see the ranking).)  The World Justice Project ranks Indonesia 61st out of 113 nations on rule of law issues in general.  (Rule of Law Around the World, World Justice Project website (last visited Nov. 29, 2016).)  One form of corruption in Indonesia is the levying of illegal fees by government officials.  Jokowi visited the Ministry of Transportation on the day he made his announcement; police had just arrested several individuals there for imposing extra fees in the granting of various permits.  (Parlina & Amindoni, supra.)

A number of politicians have run for office after serving prison terms for corruption, including Muhammad Taufik, who won a seat on the City Council in Jakarta after spending a year imprisoned for corruption in election material procurement.  His crime had been committed while he was the chair of the Jakarta General Elections Commission.  (Id.)

Nature of Proposed Reforms

The reform package introduced by Jokowi is designed to create a “culture of law,” as well as to empower those enforcing the law and reform legal instruments.  There are several major priorities: ending illegal levies and the taking of bribes; combatting smuggling; and making the processing of vehicle documents, of permits to stay in the country for foreigners, and of prisoner transfers more efficient.  (Nani Afrida & Pandaya, Superficial Reform to Uphold Rule of Flaw, JAKARTA POST (Nov. 28, 2016).)  Jokowi has also stressed that measures are needed to prevent crimes and settle cases involving corruption, human rights abuses, causing forest fires, and narcotics crimes.  (Parlina & Amindoni, supra.)

One part of the new policy is designed to reform the prison system, which has been called corrupt and overcrowded.  New penitentiaries will be built on remote islands to hold those convicted of drug offenses and terrorism.  In addition to adding capacity to the prison system, this policy will isolate certain convicts from other prisoners that they might negatively influence.  (Afrida & Pandaya, supra.)

The Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister, Wiranto, has been designated as the leader of the effort to end illegal imposition of levies.  He will also work on smoothing the process of obtaining driver’s licenses.  (Id.)  Wiranto, who, like a number of Indonesians, is known by a single name, was appointed Minister in July 2016 and is a controversial figure.  He previously served as a general in the Indonesian military and has been accused of committing atrocities in 1999, during the conflict in East Timor.  (Wiranto Named Indonesia’s Top Security Minister, AL JAZEERA (July 27, 2016).)

Reactions to Proposal

Some commentators have been critical of the law reform effort as insufficient to address the scale of problems with the legal system and point out that the reform proposal has received much less attention than the various economic reform packages introduced this year.  The problems they argue Jokowi has neglected include smuggling, “poor law enforcement, a disoriented anticorruption campaign and his administration’s weak political will to resolve gross human rights abuses that remain a thorn on [sic] his side.”   (Afrida & Pandaya, supra.)

Alvon Kurnia Palma, the chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, also criticized the proposed legal reforms as “just too investment-oriented” and  offering “no solutions to fundamental legal problems.”  (Id.)  Palma added that “[p]eople’s right to obtain legal aid has been curtailed on the pretext of budget deficit and in favor of infrastructure development.”  (Id.)

It has been argued by commentators in the press that the measures against bribery and other forms of corruption may largely benefit business owners, who complain of bureaucratic red tape and illegal levies to obtain business licenses.  (Id.)