Jakarta. The vaunted Reformasi era of democratic change in Indonesia is coming to a dead end under 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 mainly Muslim country’s 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.
But critics say that Indonesia’s entrenched vested interests have since re-asserted themselves with a vengeance, even if a return to overt dictatorship is unlikely.
Pradopo is ex-general Yudhoyono’s sole nominee for the police 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.”
But 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.
Indonesia’s economy is booming and foreigners are falling over themselves to invest in the local stockmarket, 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 halfhearted 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, for whom reform is a dirty word.
Usman Hamid, who heads the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), 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 moustachioed general would be “easily influenced”.
“He has no outstanding achievements … He bends whichever way the wind blows,” he said.
If that proves to be the case activists said it will be a seamless transition from outgoing police chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri, whose term was marked by numerous scandals.
Most recently, he was criticized over the alleged involvement of senior police officers in suspected judicial corruption surrounding the acquittal of an unusually wealthy junior tax official.
Despite his checkered record, Yudhoyono stood by Danuri and allowed him to serve out his full term in office.
In addition to concerns about corruption, rights activists accuse Pradopo of complicity in the police shooting of four student protesters during the May, 1998 demonstrations that brought down Suharto.
Reformists also fret that the police is too close to hardline Islamists, especially vigilante groups like the stick-wielding Islamic Defenders Front, also known as FPI.
Pradopo was reportedly a founding member of the FPI in 1998 and attended its anniversary celebrations earlier this year.
FPI militants do not advocate terrorism but share the jihadists’ agenda of bringing Indonesia under sharia law.
Some members have been arrested in connection with terror plots but the group says they were acting on their own.
The FPI has warmly welcomed Pradopo’s nomination. Jakarta branch leader Habib Salim Al Attas called him a “very nice, firm and smart man”.