Why Jokowi ordered the execution of drug traffickers in Indonesia

Bali Nine members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are on death row in Indonesia for drug trafficking offences. EPA/Made Nagi

The Indonesian government plans to execute five convicts on death row before the year ends. Three have been convicted for drug-related crimes.

According to The Guardian, the five condemned to death this year are all Indonesian. In 2015, the Indonesian government is planning 20 more executions, mostly of drug convicts whose nationalities aren’t known.

Two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, members of the Bali Nine drug ring, are also on death row. Indonesian president Joko Widodo explicitly said there will be no clemency for drug convicts.

Public supports death penalty

Human rights groups have criticised the planned executions. But politicians wanting to eliminate the death penalty in Indonesia face a problem: there are many vocal supporters for the death penalty for drug traffickers and other crimes.

Should Jokowi, as he is popularly known in Indonesia, show any desire to be lenient to drug traffickers, it would backfire on him politically.

There is yet to be any systematic and independent survey that could objectively show the percentage of Indonesians who support the death penalty. However, public figures often show their support for the death sentence. Last year, former Chief Justice Jimly Asshidiqqie proposed that those convicted of graft should be sentenced to death.

In recent years, the Indonesia public reacted negatively when the government pardoned people convicted for drug trafficking. When then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono granted Australian Schapelle Corby a reduction in her drug trafficking sentence in 2012, legislators criticised his decision. The PDI-P, Jokowi’s party, was among them.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received criticism over Schapelle Corby’s commutation. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Media Indonesia, which was owned by Suryo Paloh, a leader in the parliamentary coalition supporting Jokowi, criticised Corby’s release on parole earlier this year in its editorial. The editorial suggested that Yudhoyono was selling off Indonesia’s honour and that he was a friend of drug traffickers.

Jokowi’s current vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, a former Golkar Party chairman and Yudhoyono’s former vice-president between 2004 and 2009, said in 2012 that drug traffickers loved Yudhoyono for his leniency.

So, while popular among human rights activists, pardoning drug traffickers might not be popular for Jokowi.

Showing decisiveness

It appears that being decisive is currently the main theme of Jokowi’s administration.

During the presidential race, there were concerns that Jokowi was not tough enough compared to his opponent, the former military general Prabowo Subianto. Now in office, Jokowi seems to be trying to prove his critics wrong by taking actions that would be perceived as decisive.

A month after being sworn to office, Jokowi quickly cut fuel subsidies by 30%. Recently, Susi Pudjiastuti, his Minister of Maritime and Fisheries, ordered the sinking of three Vietnamese fishing boats that entered Indonesian waters. Being tough on drug dealers would fit this pattern.

Human rights commitment questioned

For human rights activists, Jokowi’s refusal to pardon death row inmates raises questions over his commitment to human rights.

In his presidential campaign, Jokowi promised to improve human rights protection. For some human rights defenders, this meant the elimination of the death penalty.

Local human rights organisation KontraS, the Commission for the “Disapeared” and Victims of Violence, lambasted Jokowi’s decision to allow the executions. KontraS coordinator Haris Azhar said Jokowi “doesn’t understand human rights”.

Still, not everything is set in stone. As Indonesia law expert and University of Melbourne professor Tim Lindsey noted, there are still many legal avenues to pursue. The government might also change its mind when the issue is not as prominent.

In regards to the two members of the Bali Nine, it is best for the Australian government to not overreact. If the Australian government attempts to pressure Indonesia to save Chan and Sukumaran, it might invite a backlash.