It was interesting to read that the Ethics Council of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court decided to remove Anwar Usman from his post as Chief Justice (in early November 2023) after he apparently cast a deciding vote in favour of a controversial revision that allows his nephew-by-marriage, Gibran Rakabuming, to join the upcoming 2024 presidential election as one of the three vice-presidential candidates.
The Council came to the conclusion that there occurred a conflict of interest when in October 2023 the Constitutional Court under the chairmanship of Usman decided to revise a regulation related to the minimum age of the (vice) presidential candidates in national elections. This decision paved the way for President Joko Widodo’s son, Gibran (Usman’s nephew), to join the race, despite his young age (36 years).
However, the problem is that this conflict of interest was to be expected the minute Usman married Idawati, President Widodo’s younger sister, in May 2022. Back then we instantly emphasized that it’s far from ideal to have a President and Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court who are – through marriage of a close relative – related. Not because it causes a conflict of interest per se, but because it gives the impression of a conflict of interest. And, in any healthy democracy the impression of a conflict of interest at the top level needs to be avoided, too. And so, we were simply waiting for this situation to cause actual problems, which it finally did in October 2023.
But the true question, of course, is: why did the Ethics Council wait so long before it intervened? Now, it has actually given the impression that it deliberately waited for intervening until after the Constitutional Court decided to pave the way for Gibran and Gerindra Chairman Prabowo Subianto to join the race. And so, it has now also cast a negative light on the Ethics Council and the Constitutional Court as a whole.
All Constitutional Court decisions are final and binding, but it is possible to simply file a new petition at the court. And, indeed, in the second week of November 2023 it was reported in Indonesian media that a number of new petitions had been filed demanding the re-examination of the age of candidates. In theory a new decision can undo an earlier decision.
However we haven’t heard anything ever since. And perhaps we won’t hear anything from the Constitutional Court until after the 2024 presidential election, when any election result will have become a fait accompli (because at the time of registering his candidacy or at the time of voting on 14 February 2024, Gibran’s participation in the election was fully in line with prevailing law, while any new Constitutional Court decision is unlikely to work retroactively).
As we discussed in more detail in last month’s report, the incoming Widodo is a bit different from the outgoing Widodo. Although we are the first to acknowledge that he has done many great things for the country during his decade-long presidency (such as his push for infrastructure development and energy subsidy reforms), there has now emerged a Widodo-dynasty in national politics with two of his children and one son-in-law active in high political positions, and who apparently can rely on the support of the Constitutional Court to achieve their ambitions.
This is in stark difference to when Widodo first arrived at the political scene, hailed as the first leader who didn’t originate from the country's elite or military, a man of the people, a reformer, and a new hope for Indonesian democracy. Well, in the end, he didn’t change the system, but it was the system that changed him and his family.
Richard van der Schaar, MA Indonesian Studies
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