Drug executions signal end of Indonesian president's honeymoon

David McRae says Indonesia's recent executions of drug traffickers highlight Widodo's short-term thinking within a corrupt system

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 11:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 11:54am

The execution of eight narcotics convicts in Indonesia last week brings President Joko Widodo's fleeting international honeymoon to a definitive close. Fourteen drugs prisoners have now been put to death in just over six months under Widodo, 12 of them foreigners.

These killings preserve democratic Indonesia's membership of an unenviable club. Only 11, mostly authoritarian, nations have executed drugs convicts since 2004, according to comparative scholars.

Ironically, Widodo's election was seen as a clean break from an authoritarian past, as he made his name as a democratic-era mayor and governor.

That cachet has now evaporated as Indonesia faces the ire of its key international partners over the unseemly rush to execute their citizens. Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors when their citizens faced the firing squad in January; Australia has now recalled its envoy over the latest executions.

Intensifying international anger, some of those executed were still pursuing legal challenges to administration of the death penalty. Others had judicial reviews summarily dismissed despite uncertainty in Indonesian law over their legality.

The international scrutiny generated by the executions has also shone an unforgiving light on Indonesia's weak and graft-riddled judicial system. Clear examples have emerged of arbitrary and inconsistent application of the death penalty. Allegations of corruption have also been levelled.

Rather than respond seriously to such allegations, Widodo and his senior aides simply called for other countries not to intervene in Indonesia's legal sovereignty. Such statements have met with a predictable response: other countries ask no more of Indonesia than it asks when it seeks clemency for the hundreds of its own citizens facing the death penalty abroad, many of them in drugs cases.

Why has Widodo taken this hard line on narcotics executions? It stems from his obsession with achieving so-called "breakthroughs" - instant, visible solutions to previously intractable problems, adopted without thought to the broader adverse consequences. One such breakthrough has been to combat illegal fishing by sinking seized foreign vessels, with the media afforded full opportunity to cover the explosions. Although making for good press, these sinkings risk rows with regional partners, and do nothing to address Indonesia's patrol capacity and fisheries management problems.

Executions are Widodo's breakthrough to improve law enforcement against a claimed "drugs emergency", said by the president to see 18,000 Indonesians die every year. Both the breakthrough and the problem it purports to solve are a sham. Executions do not target the untouched high levels of drug syndicates or law enforcement corruption, and no evidence shows that the death penalty provides an additional deterrent. Moreover, Indonesia lacks the data to quantify its drugs problem.

These breakthroughs are unlikely to deliver lasting political gains, as they do not meaningfully address Indonesia's problems. Widodo must move past this fixation with instant breakthroughs. He is dragging down his own standing with his short-term thinking, and damaging Indonesia's international reputation.

David McRae is a senior research fellow at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne