Last week, tens of thousands of students across Indonesia took to the streets to protest a series of controversial laws that weaken the country’s highly popular Corruption Eradication Commission and stipulate harsh criminal penalties for a host of new offenses, including insulting the president and having sex outside of marriage. These are the largest student demonstrations in the country since activists stormed the parliament two decades ago, forcing the resignation of President Suharto and ending 32 years of his so-called New Order dictatorship.

The protests started on Sept. 23 with ad hoc marches organized by university students. Since then they have spread with surprising speed across major urban centers, escalating to disturbing levels of violence. At least 232 people have been injured in confrontations with police forces using tear gas and water cannons. On Thursday, two students were killed, reportedly shot during clashes with the police. As the parliament concluded its final session Monday, thousands of students in Jakarta clashed again with the police, shutting down all major roads in the city.

Sana Jaffrey
Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is concurrently the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), Jakarta.
More >

Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who was reelected with more than 55 percent of the popular vote in April, is no stranger to protests. His first term and reelection were marked by a series of large demonstrations from Islamist groups, backed by opposition parties. But what is unique about these ongoing student protests is that they are led by his own supporters, who are enraged by his reluctance to block parliamentary legislation targeting anti-corruption efforts and diminishing personal freedoms.

Although most influential politicians in Indonesia are linked to powerful political families or the military, Jokowi rose to prominence as an outsider. His clean image as a small-town mayor and the governor of Jakarta, along with his promises to champion human rights and accountability, delivered him an unlikely victory in the 2014 presidential race.

Months into Jokowi’s first term, however, he ran into resistance from his own coalition partners in parliament, who saw his victory as a way to access state resources and further their political interests. And so he shifted focus to the implementation of infrastructure projects, appointing New Order-era generals as advisors to help him overcome political and bureaucratic obstacles. The reliance on the security apparatus to deal with political opponents grew deeper as Islamist groups launched a highly polarizing sectarian campaign, first against his key political allies and then against his own reelection bid. As observers have noted, Jokowi’s survival measures led to unprecedented persecution of political critics and reinvolvement of the military in politics.

Expectations from Jokowi’s second term were higher. His supporters still believed that he was a good man constrained by a corrupt system. This image, along with a popular aversion to the Islamist alternative presented by the rival camp, secured him and his supporting coalition a decisive mandate for a second term. Emboldened by the victory and free from the burden of seeking re-nomination, Jokowi vowed to pursue sweeping reforms.

Emboldened by the victory and free from the burden of seeking re-nomination, Jokowi vowed to pursue sweeping reforms.

But that is why his government’s active participation in formulating a series of regressive laws has enraged his supporters. The furor began last week when a bill that strips the Corruption Eradication Commission of its independence suddenly appeared on the legislative agenda. As the most frequent targets of the commission’s anti-graft investigations, lawmakers and party officials had long devised laws to curtail the agency’s powers, but the fear of public backlash prevented them from bringing it for a vote. This time, however, the president’s office also supported these efforts by saying that the anti-corruption agency was discouraging investment.

Taking Jokowi’s reelection as a sign of unconditional support for his policies, all political parties joined forces for a speedy passage of the law that would allow no time for public mobilization against it. Despite anti-graft activists’ demands for a delay in proceedings to allow for public debate, the bill passed unanimously, within days.

Emboldened by this success, parliament declared its intention to pass several other unpopular bills before the end of the legislative session. These include a massive overhaul of the criminal code that penalizes dissent and invades privacy, as well as changes to the labor law and agrarian reform that improve ease of business for large corporations while diminishing legal protections for ordinary citizens.

Underestimating the public’s reaction has turned out to be a grave miscalculation. Data from the Asian Barometer Survey shows that Indonesians consistently identify corruption as the top issue for the government to address, as nearly half the population perceives government officials to be mostly corrupt. The data also shows that the public’s perception of the government’s efforts to address corruption had improved significantly since the Corruption Eradication Commission began operating in 2003. Indeed, the commission is arguably the most popular institution in the country, and previous efforts to interfere in its operations galvanized overwhelming public support for it.

The politicians’ brazen disregard for public opinion stunned seasoned political activists but mobilized a younger generation of Indonesians that has often been regarded as lacking political awareness or interest. Not only have these new entrants into mass politics found innovative ways to arrange their protests and win support through social media and crowd-funding, but they have also articulated a set of progressive demands that include release of political prisoners involved in the independence movement in Papua province and the passage of a long-pending bill on the prevention of sexual violence.

The rapid mobilization by students who are relatively new to politics suggests that civil society still has the ability to check excesses by elected officials. The protests successfully forced the president and parliament to table the criminal code revisions and all other laws until the next session. Jokowi has also offered to meet the protesters in the coming days and consider their demands.

But there are two deeply troubling signs. First, the government response indicates a growing tendency to treat dissent as a security issue. The retired military and active police personnel tasked with managing the situation have repeatedly hinted that the protesters are linked with radical Islamist groups to question their credibility. Fearing that prolonged outrage may interfere with the presidential inauguration in a few weeks, the government quickly resorted to force, dispersing the protesters with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Reports about arbitrary detention of students and intimidation of journalists are also eerily reminiscent of New Order tactics.

Second, these events reveal the growing deficit of accountability for elected officials. Elections in Indonesia are open and fair. Voters can and frequently do throw out politicians that they do not like. However, the choices offered to the voters are extremely limited, since the requirements for registering new parties are onerous. It is no wonder, then, that with one exception, all parties in the Indonesian parliament today are either carry-overs from the New Order or created by former military generals and self-financed oligarchs. Although these parties compete fiercely at the polls, once in parliament they enter power-sharing agreements that effectively void voters’ preferences.

This current round of protests may subside this week as the parliament inaugurates a new session, if the government shows restraint in dealing with the protesters to avoid triggering further violent clashes. However, the long-term implications of these events depend on the lessons that are drawn by each side. If the protests serve to deepen the president’s insecurity about his hold on power, there may be an increase in repression to prevent new protests. However, if he takes this as a sign of popular support for the reform agenda that he promised in his first term and draws on it to counterbalance resistance in the parliament, observers may see signs of progress. Similarly, as students and civil society activists reflect on their next move, they will have to decide whether to continue pressuring elected officials through street protests on an issue-by-issue basis or go the even more difficult route to seek an overhaul of the electoral system that would make parties more accountable to voters.

This is article was originally published by Foreign Policy.