The vaunted Reformasi era of democratic change is coming to a dead end under Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s leadership, if his candidate for police chief is any indication, activists say.
Some are already drafting obituaries for the spirit of openness and liberal reform that energized the country of 240 million people in the years after the resignation of the dictator Suharto in 1998.
The latest nail in the coffin, according to these rights activists, is the imminent appointment of three-star General Timur Pradopo, 54, as chief of the notoriously corrupt police force.
When Yudhoyono came to power in 2004, defeating the daughter of Suharto’s predecessor Sukarno in a poll seen as free and fair, he was considered a potential reformer himself. However, critics say entrenched vested interests have since re-asserted themselves with a vengeance, even if a return to overt dictatorship is unlikely.
Pradopo is the sole nominee for the job, and while he will be grilled by lawmakers this week, activists say his appointment is as good as certain — but few believe he has what it takes to clean up the force.
Teten Masduki of Transparency International, which ranked Indonesia 111 out of 180 countries in a corruption survey last year, said that with Pradopo in charge of the police, Reformasi will probably remain on life support.
“We don’t see him as a strong figure who can effect change. The process of reform will stay stagnant,” he said. “This is regrettable. There is so much corruption in the police force. The appointment of a new chief should have been an entry point for the president to make changes, but he’s letting the opportunity slip.”
However, political scientist Bima Arya Sugiarto said the nomination is Yudhoyono’s prerogative and Pradopo should be given a chance to prove himself.
“All candidates have their plus and minus points, so let’s give him a chance while keeping an eye on his performance,” he said.
The economy is booming and foreigners are falling over themselves to invest in the local stock market, but a sense of pessimism is creeping through Indonesian civil society.
Critics point to a culture of cronyism, nepotism and impunity for human rights abuses, a lack of government transparency and the increasing use of draconian libel laws to muzzle critics and whistle-blowers.
Yudhoyono has won two elections with strong mandates to crack down on rampant corruption, but his efforts are widely seen as selective and half-hearted at best.
At worst, some say he is complicit in cementing the power of a shadowy, Suharto-era “oligarchy” of mainly Javanese businessmen and former generals.
Usman Hamid, who heads the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, said such elites needed a police chief like Pradopo to protect their interests.
“The choice of police chief is a threat to those involved in corruption. Timur Pradopo won’t make things difficult for them,” he said.
Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace deputy chairman Bonar Tigor Naipospos said the general would be “easily influenced.”
“He has no outstanding achievements ... He bends whichever way the wind blows,” Naipospos said.
If that proves to be the case, activists said, it would be a seamless transition from outgoing police chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri, whose term was marked by numerous scandals.