When presidents make the consequential decision to suspend democracy, they usually do so at a critical juncture in history and with a grand purpose in mind.
Would-be autocrats need to have a perfectly plausible excuse for why such a drastic decision is needed.
When Egyptian military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided in 2013 to temporarily suspend the constitution, it was a response to political chaos and division created by president Mohamed Morsi’s administration.
But el Sisi’s primary argument was to suppress the rise of Islamism in Egypt as represented by Morsi and his political vehicle the Muslim Brotherhood. Within months of the el-Sisi-led coup, the Egyptian military took steps to undermine the Islamist organization — banning it in September 2013 and declaring it a terror organization in December.
Post 9/11, the war on terror has been used as justification when political leaders have decided to partially or wholly suspend democracy.
Analysts have chalked up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power grab to the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004, which ended in the deaths of 330 people, mostly children. For Putin, the rise of regional terrorist groups, including the Chechen rebels who launched the siege, indicated Russian state weaknesses; the only solution was centralizing power in the Kremlin.
But the idea of concentrating power in the hands of the executive to deal with terrorism does not come from strongmen like Putin and el-Sisi alone.
Shocked and awed by the 9/11 terror attacks, democratically-elected president George W. Bush enacted the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the government’s surveillance power. Some provisions, including one that empowers law enforcers to search homes without the homeowner’s knowledge and without a judge-approved warrant, led many rights groups to deem the act as “offensive to democracy”.
Closer to home, when past presidents have decided to forgo democratic practices, it was mostly claimed as being for the sake of great national urgency.
In July 1959, when the country’s first president Sukarno moved to suspend the provisional 1950 Constitution, which included all provisions of the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was the foundation for Indonesia’s parliamentary democracy, the country was in a precarious political and security situation.
Indonesia’s territorial integrity was under threat from regional rebellions while security forces were engaged in a confrontation with the Dutch over who should occupy Irian Barat, now Papua.
Things were so bad that in 1957, the government decided to declare martial law, which later proved ineffective, as security continued to deteriorate, culminating in the attempted assassination on Sukarno himself.
Faced with such a dire political situation, it was apparently easy for the founding father to roll out measures that would weaken democracy.
In 1966, when Gen. Soeharto rose to power, he took the drastic legal, political and military decision to rid the country of the communist threat and bring back a semblance of political stability.
Soon after Soeharto received the March 11 decree from Sukarno, which basically gave him an order to improve the overall security situation, the army general enacted measures to ban the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), set up a kangaroo court to try the party’s bigwigs and purge the Indonesian military of elements sympathetic to Sukarno and/or the PKI.
Soeharto basically founded his authoritarian regime on demonizing communists and repeatedly imposed draconian measures throughout the New Order era on the pretext of cracking down on remnants of the PKI.
While we should not consider any effort to undermine democracy as permissible, at least we now know that for most would-be autocrats, suspending democracy should be taken seriously and not be spurred by mundane tasks like creating jobs.
And from the brouhaha surrounding the deliberation of the omnibus bill on job creation, we now know that not only was the plan to compromise our democracy not motivated by some higher purpose, we also learned that officials involved in the bill’s discussion failed miserably in their job of making an effective sales pitch for the plan.
While Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD tends to make light of the solemn pledge to defend democracy — saying that the omnibus bill’s contentious articles resulted from “a typo” — Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto completely misunderstood the concept of democracy itself.
A typo is when you mistake a full stop for a comma and there’s nothing to suggest that the phrase “…central government can change provisions within this law or change provisions within laws not amended by this law” is the work of a careless intern at the State Secretariat.
And if concentrating power in the hands of a president was solely motivated by the urgent need to protect the office holder from potential impeachment, then minister Airlangga mistook the job of a president for that of a king.
In a democracy, it is the job of the president to negotiate with the House on how best to execute his office. And if the president loses the debate and is forced to make concessions, it is simply the function of the separation of powers.
Besides, if the ultimate goal is to create jobs and push economic growth, the government could, for instance, focus on streamlining and/or improving existing regulations.
In the grand scheme of things, job creation should be a matter of governance, not constitutional tinkering. Don’t burn a house just to smoke out a rat.
Deputy chief editor of The Jakarta Post