Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been on the receiving end of international protests and condemnation for executing foreign nationals in January. He plans to send 11 more convicted drug traffickers on death row, including two Australians, to the firing squad.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for Indonesia to halt executions. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott also pleaded for Jokowi, as the president is popularly known in Indonesia, to spare the lives of Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, warning that the relationship between the two countries will be harmed if Indonesia proceeds with the executions.
Could their pleas actually move Jokowi to change his mind and grant clemency to the death-row prisoners now facing execution?
Indonesia will not likely budge
It is doubtful that Jokowi will be moved. He has insisted that the death penalty is a “law enforcement” solution to a national drug “emergency”. But more than that, it is also a political issue.
Human rights activists have been calling for Jokowi to abide by Indonesia’s obligation to grant death row convicts a genuine chance of pardons and commutations as stated in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
For Jokowi, the calculation is clear: the political cost is too high for him to grant such pardons.
As I have explained, while there is no systematic and independent survey that could show the percentage of Indonesians supporting the death penalty, Indonesia’s political elite is generally united in their support for capital punishment.
Following Ban’s call to halt execution, the Indonesian parliament’s deputy speaker, Fadli Zon, who is from the opposition coalition, declared his support for Jokowi to ignore the UN’s call and go ahead with the executions. He stressed that there is overwhelming public support for executing drug offenders.
Abbott’s linking of aid to his call for Indonesia to show mercy – he pointedly referred to the A$1 billion Australia had provided after the 2004 tsunami – provoked a negative response.
“Threats are not part of diplomatic language,” foreign affairs spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said. “And from what I know, no-one responds well to threats.”
Vice-President Jusuf Kalla stated that Indonesia would carry out the executions regardless of Australia’s protests. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that the death penalty was “purely a law enforcement issue”.
Being lenient brings political disadvantages
The Schapelle Corby case proved that being lenient to drug smugglers was politically unpopular, as then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discovered.
So Jokowi is not likely to consider halting the executions. Such a move simply does not have clear political benefits.
Granting clemency to convicted drug traffickers would also provide ammunition for Jokowi’s powerful critics to hammer his administration further. Domestically, Jokowi’s popularity is suffering from his seeming indifference to the national police efforts to undermine Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission.
Foreign pressures will not do much to sway Jokowi’s opinion. Instead, it is more likely to generate a nationalist backlash.
In light of Ban’s appeal for sentence commutation, several Indonesian news media outlets, including Merdeka.com, Detik.com, Media Indonesia and Viva News, ran an opinion article by Hikmahanto Juwana, a professor of international law from Universitas Indonesia. He rhetorically asked where Ban was when Indonesian migrant workers were executed in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike Yudhoyono, who seemed to strive really hard to be liked by everyone, Jokowi has seemed not to really care about what other nations think about him. After his first foreign trips in November 2014, Jokowi remarked:
What’s the point of having many friends but we only get the disadvantages? Many friends should bring many benefits.
It could probably be argued that, for Jokowi, it is less a case of “Jokowi should commute the Bali Nine’s death sentence to make Tony Abbott happy” than “what could Tony Abbott do for Jokowi so he would commute their death sentence?”
Jokowi’s desire to be seen as father of nation
Finally, as I have previously argued, Jokowi’s refusal to pardon drug convicts on death row could be explained by his desire to project the public image of a decisive leader. Jokowi wants to be seen as a leader who commands a country with strong rule of law.
There are some who dissent from my argument. Jarrah Sastrawan argued that Jokowi’s bullheaded refusal to grant clemency was not based on concern for his personal image, but rather on:
… his personal conservatism and the impact of the Soeharto-era propaganda of his youth.
We may disagree on Jokowi’s inner motivation. I will not speculate on that. But it is clear that regardless of his motivation, Jokowi wants to be seen as a strong leader or, rather, as father of the nation who can be firm when necessary.