ADVOCATE: Democratic Backsliding in Indonesia with Mercy Barends


ADVOCATE: Democratic Backsliding in Indonesia with Mercy Barends

You’re now listening to “Advocate” by APHR, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. APHR is a network of current and former parliamentarians from Southeast Asia who use their unique position to advance human rights and democracy in the region. Hello, I’m Karina Tehusijarana, Media Manager of APHR. I’ll be your host for today and currently I’m with APHR Chair and Indonesian MP Mercy Chriesty Barends.

Hello Karina. How are you?

Mercy Chriesty Barends is an Indonesian politician who is the current chair of APHR  and is a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle or PDI-P. She has served as a Member of Indonesia’s House of Representatives since 2014,  where she has been very active on Climate Change issues through her work in The Alliance of Parliamentarian Call for Fossil Free Future, the Global Alliance for Green New Deal, or Air Quality Asia, as well as chairing the House’s Green Economy Caucus. She has recently been reelected to the House in February’s general elections, representing the electoral district of Maluku.

Today we will talk about the democratic situation in Indonesia, APHR’s ongoing advocacy, and of course the role of parliamentarians in this situation.

Mercy Barends during Commission VII meeting at The House of Representatives building, 13 September 2023. ©KRESNO/NR

Thank you again for joining us, Bu Mercy, before we go into the democratic situation in Indonesia, can you tell us a bit about yourself, about your background and how you first entered politics, and also how you first joined APHR?

Before I became a member of parliament, I worked as a CSO officer from 1996-1997 until 2010. The last position as executive director of a local NGO in Maluku work from capacity building, community developments, health, community issues and other activities in the other sites.

I work for local governments to support local governments as a consultant, as a member of the poverty reductions committee at the provincial level and in the Ambon city municipality. And we work hand in hand with the local governments to strengthen the policymaking to reduce the poverty in Maluku and in Ambon city.

I also established local women NGO work for empowerment of women, capacity building in Maluku, advocacy for several critical issues in Maluku, especially women in politics, women in economy, gender based violence in all sectors, etcetera.

Soeharto, Indonesian military officer and politician, who served as the second and the longest serving president of Indonesia from 1966-1998.

Flashback to when the first time I got involved in politics, actually it was during the Suharto regime, which was very authoritarian, oppressive and intimidating during the new order. So in politics as a young age, at the time, I and the other students, university faculty, students, we at the time, we were very, very angry that President Suharto had been too much involved in one party called Indonesian Democratic Party at the time before they replaced the name in 1999 become Indonesia Democratic Party of struggle (PDI-P), which led by the Ibu Megawati Soekarno Putri, the first of the daughter of President Soekarno.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri gives her speech during an opening ceremony of ASEAN ministerial meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia on Wednesday, 30 June 2004. ©EPA/WEDA

Under the regime of the president Suharto at the time, PDI-P couldn’t participate in the election 1997. Too much corruption, collusion and nepotism. The political situation headed up in 1997 and reached its peak in 1998 when major riots occurred. Demonstrations everywhere. People took to the streets, including students, including me. When the other students in Ambon City and the other activists, ask Suharto to step down as president at the time, and eventually be replaced by Habibi as the vice president at the time.

Indonesian President BJ Habibie at Bina Graha Presidential Office in Jakarta, July 1998. ©Kemal Jufri/Getty

So not only in Jakarta, the state of capital, but also in various other provinces in Indonesia. That was the first time I got involved in politics. Together with the other students, CSOs and other activists in Ambon City, Maluku province, until 1999, several party seniors were looking for the younger generation, especially the young women generation, to be recruited officially as a member of the party.

Then I became a member of the party formally after following the release in 1995 until 1999. The year 1999 was very special for me. That was the first time I became a candidate of legislative election at the Ambon City municipality assembly. Although I failed at the time.

But since then, I have participated actively in the party. Until now, became a member of Maluku Legislative Council for two terms since elections 2004. And then until election 2014, I became a member of parliament at the national level.

Joined the APHR

How did I join APHR? So the main actor, on how I joined APHR, was honorable Ibu Eva Kusuma Sundari. She was an honorable MP at the time and came from the same party with me in the parliament as a human rights activist also. Although we are members of parliament at the time, we have a strong patient and committed work in this field.

So in 2015, when Ibu Eva encouraged me to become a member of parliament, I asked Ibu Eva at the time, what’s the meaning of APHR? I think that APHR is like a local or national movement, something like that. Because Ibu Eva is always surrounded by many, many civil society movements. And Ibu Eva said “No, Mercy. APHR is the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Works for the first form Myanmar. Advocacy for democracy and fundamental freedom. At the time. Yeah, actually APHR needs progressive members of parliament to work in this field together with the others in APHR.

Eva Kusuma Sundari, APHR Board Member.

So then I participated in several activities in 2015 in Jakarta, and for the first time became a speaker on behalf of APHR in the ASEAN People Summit in Timor Leste related to climate change and advocacy of business and environmental issues in the ASEAN region. Since then, I have actively participated in APHR until now.

APHR Works

Thank you very much, Bu Mercy, for that introduction. As you said, you’ve recently become, I think in 2020, right at the end of 2022, became chair of APHR. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing since you’ve become chair of APHR?

Since 2015, until becoming not only a board member, but since two years ago became the chair of APHR. This journey for me, unimaginable. It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I feel, yeah, because I’m very junior among the very, very senior and very, very credible members of parliament, current MP’s and former MP’s work in this field.

I do realize and I do accept this reality as God’s calling for me. I Work not only for my constituent people in Maluku province in Indonesia to serve Indonesian people, but I can serve beyond Indonesia, work for the other vulnerable people in human rights, fundamental freedom, democracy field, etc.

There have been many, many valuable stories and experiences worked along the way with the other board members. APHR worked on several issues such as in human rights issues, fundamental freedom and democracy, business and climate change, migrant worker and refugee, including freedom of religion and belief.

Work as a board member among credible and excellent senior, current and former MP’s, definitely push myself to work with extraordinary measurement about agenda setting, the trajectory of APHR movement and advocacy, how to sharpen the critical thinking, the critical movement, critical awareness, looking for strategic partners and networks which those impacts are to achieve a better future in the ASEAN region.

We cannot work as business as usual in the human rights field. It is not about number of cases, only about humanity and civilization in asian region, about our next future generation, how to put people at the center of development, about democratic leadership, how to develop and strengthen clean and good governance, about check and balance, how to strengthen the role of policy making, especially unique roles of function and functions of member of parliaments, how to strengthen public control and substantive participation.

So that as the board member, I work at the strategic level to create policies and programs, fact finding missions, international parliamentary inquiry, media communication, advocacy, workshop, conference, expand membership, etcetera.

Indonesia’s Legislative System

Thank you very much, Bu Mercy, for that overview of your work at APHR. Now maybe we can start talking a little bit about the political situation in Indonesia. Maybe we can start for listeners who may not be that knowledgeable about the parliamentary system in Indonesia. Maybe you could explain a little bit about Indonesia’s legislative system.

I do believe that through an accountable and well functioning legislative system is the fundamental aspect of a thriving democracy based on five principles of Pancasila in Indonesia. According to the national constitution, the Indonesian legislative system has three branches of the legislative system.

The House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia, we commonly call it DPR, and the Regional Representative Council, we call it DPD, and there is the MPR, the legislative branch of Indonesia’s political system composed of two houses, DPR and DPD, as one or united system of legislation.

DPR MPR Building of the Republic of Indonesia, Jakarta.

DPR holds most of the legislative power because it has the sole power to pass laws based on our constitution of structure of DPR and its functions. The DPD acts as a supplementary body to DPR. It can propose bills, offer its opinions and participate in discussion, but has no legal power because the DPD cannot take decisions, especially in a political system.

So the other one, the MPR itself has power outside of those given to the individual houses. It can amend the constitution, inaugurate the president and conduct impeachment procedures for the president. Bills are originated either by the House of Representatives plus the regional representative, Council of DPD or the President on behalf of the national governments.

In the House, bills can be discussed or proceeded by legislative board, commission or special committee which is composed of representatives from relevant commissions on a daily basis. The legislative board is the main instrument in the parliament to strengthen the rule of law of the democratization process. Legislative board functions are to plan the DPR’s legislative agenda and to establish priority bills which are projected annually and five years in the coming years. The principle of the legislative system related with the quality of law formation is scrutinized in light of the principle of good legislation, emphasizing transparency, participation, effectiveness and efficiency.

But on the other side, there is also a general skepticism here about vested interest among government, parliament or other parties such as corporations through the possibility of under table money in the legislative process. The other side in the process to buy under table money related with certain articles of the bill abuse power to control the content of the bill which give benefit for oligarchies or bill corporate or other parties who gained benefit from the legislative process.

So this public opinion is common for us as a member of parliament as the perceivability in various social media due to the high number of corruption cases among members of parliament, government, private sector institutions, actors, etcetera.

So for that open and transparent process, DPR makes an effort to incorporate with civil society to get views, anxiety and considerations of the bill through hearing public dialog, frequent meetings and discussion with multi stakeholders and other related parties like academia, journalists, vulnerable people or another relevant segment of the community.

The other side is related to digitizing legislation. So we don’t talk about how to open and make transparent the legislative process, but how to digitize legislation so people of Indonesia can give their comments, their input, their perspective, insight, whatever. In our website, many platforms we already developed, and the other aspect is we can socialize officially our products of legislative process. So yeah, we still work hard to make transparent and accountable the legislative process in the parliament together with the government.

How to Advocate Legislative Reforms

Thank you, Bu Mercy. You mentioned there are a few challenges about the vested interests of maybe certain parties or certain individual members of parliament. Do you have any best practices that you can share for other MPs or maybe from people outside parliament, such as civil society organizations who want to advocate for certain legislative reforms or amendments?

Actually, the advocacy process is very important to produce the best quality of the legislative process. The advocacy process related to how to produce the best quality of the legislative process. Actually we can do in many ways to make it happen, to control, to frame all the processes so the process can be fair, just, transparent, and accountable.

First is related to the system. When we talk about the system, we talk about the procedure based on the law and regulations. It’s like a standard of procedures. So all members of parliament have to know about these all stages when we run in a legislative election.

The second one is how to look for the champions to become the strategic alliance in the legislative process. Those who have patience, strong commitment, integrity and political willingness. When we can identify them, we can do things like lobbying and negotiation among the champions, among the lawmakers.

Sometimes for certain issues, so much better to run the preliminary meetings or informal lobbying and non negotiation. Honestly, I can say sometimes when we run in the formal phases, sometimes many barriers like vested interest among the governments, parliaments or the other parties, related stakeholders, something like that.

But when we do like lobbying or informal negotiations, how to set up the common ground among us, critical awareness, critical thinking among us, and how to think that this product can give the big and best impact for the human life, environmental issues, education, women, participation in politics, etcetera, something like that. So therefore, the process in the floor or debates finally will be running more smoothly. When we can do something like informal meeting, talking, lobbying, negotiation. 

The other one is to open the space for participation of multi stakeholders, open the gate. We have to notify, we have to recognize extra parliamentarian movements. When we are in process of drafting certain bill maybe related with sexual violence bill. We talk about the green economy bills with many movements, many perspectives can come from many multi stakeholders.

You have to open the space to get all of the perspectives, of insights, from everywhere, everyone.

The last one, although it’s very technical issues, you have to protect and guard the document result every stage. So that’s why every chapter or article has been discussed. Then it must be protected with the protocol of standard of legislative process or darting the law. So that’s why all the staff behind our seats, we have to give clear directions for them to type, to replace a word, grammar or everything.

So yeah, I can say that many, many activities we can do and for the type of advocacy to make the process be more smoothly in the legislative process, there are two types or two frame work to do, like soft ways or heartways of hearing, lobbying, join a letter, comparative legal and academic draft from academicians, media, campaign, art campaign, etcetera.

Also on the other side, there is no need to be allergic to the hard ways. When we face the hard ways from the community together with the other related stakeholders, like a demonstration, hunger strikes, blocking actions, use cultural practices such as like in Maluku, like we call it Sasi adat, like stabbing a spear or bamboo with a coconut leaf or red clothes on the top of the bamboo into the land as a symbol of the traditional oath that no activity is permitted in the other part of the other party to do something in this area, or something like that.

The elders of South Buano, Huamual District, West Seram Regency (SBB) installed sea Sasi signs on the coast of their country, on October 13 2022. ©ANTARA/HO-LPPM Maluku

So based on my experience, I may already do all of this in Maluku province, when we face a sugarcane company, a big sugarcane company in Maluku province. And then we run demonstrations, hunger strikes, blocking actions. So the indigenous people block the area of forest, land, etcetera. Yes, with their arrows and with their swords. And sometimes they do something like what we call a traditional prayer to God and ancestor to protect the land and forest, coastal area, something like that.

Indonesia’s General Elections 2024

As you know, in February this year, Indonesia just held general elections. And you mentioned that you first entered politics back during the Suharta era, you know, when in the new order era, where the elections were rife with corruption, collusion and nepotism. And a lot of experts and observers have said that these recent elections are the worst elections since that era, the new order era, and question the neutrality of the government and state apparatus during this process. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal experience during these elections?

So, to frame this issue shortly, I will start about the deterioration of democracy, declining of democracy which began since constitutional court decision has breached the etiquette of conduct in the constitutional court and eventually produced constitutional Court decision number 90/2023 concerning the age limit for presidential and first presidential candidates. 

Constitutional Court Chief Justice Anwar Usman (R) reads the verdict during a hearing at the Constitutional Court building in Jakarta, Indonesia, 23 October 2023. ©EPA-EFE/MAST IRHAM

Actually I state my question based on Jimly Asshiddiqie, the Chief of the Court’s Honorary Council, when gave official statement on the decision of ethic council said in the majority decision that Constitution Court Chief Justice Anwar Usman was proven to be committed as serious violations of the code of ethics and behavior of constitutional justices by violating the principle of impartiality, integrity, competence, equality, independence, appropriateness and decency.

Jimly Asshiddiqie at Constitutional Court Hall, 24 October 2023.

This decision occurred to make the oldest son of the president fulfill the requirements of age and be the vice president candidate for president’s elections 2024. Actually, these political practices tend to framing and canalize one pair of the other, among others presidential candidate pairs to be elected. So it’s very, very structured since the beginning. So as an MP from Indonesia, Democratic Party of Struggle, certainly I and the common public, especially our constituents become the witness and so the shocking political practice ever in my lifetime in politics, very shocking. And yeah, we have no words to say when it already happened.

And when we come to our constituent, especially a supporter of the party in Maluku province in many, many islands. Many of them cried at the time and they said “Hi Ibu Mercy. Why? What happened? We are left behind by someone that we already give our best political effort to support since the beginning until we get the power as president in two terms.” So yeah, this is very, very shocking for us. And I can say that the first one is related to how to tamper the Constitutional Court decision.

The second one is weakening the opposition parties which are not in the coalition with the majority ones. Yes, truly I can say that the weakest matter among the parties and policy makers in the parliament government, even in the sub-national like provincial to the village leader is corruption. That’s why the element of policymaker or public service lost their power and trust to do and uphold the principle of true, just uncountable democracy and political practices during the election 2024.

Because of the political pressure from the enormous power above which brought them to the post. So they are very, very afraid to be contrary with the big power and the other related political parties in the big coalition at the time. And we face the situation on the field day by day.

The third one is buying votes. From my experience as politicians since running elections since 1999 to the election 2024 in my constituency, my constituent area, Maluku province consists of nine regencies and two municipalities consisting of 1,342 islands, 1,200 villages, 118 sub districts, 35 urban villages.

I faced the biggest buying votes ever since I was involved in politics, massively structurally. The normalization of buying votes and social aid distribution, empirically become a symbol of power for the candidate to pass the elections and finally remain a threat to adjust and accountable democracy in the future for all of us and for the next generations.

Fourth is related to the psychology war caused by the presence of police officers and other law enforcement officers in large numbers. Trucks surrounding the campaign location aim to break down the mentality, moral force and fighting spirit between both candidate or supporter our constituents is to not come to what we call it, campaign location like that.

So I do realize the position of PDIP in the 2024 elections, politically we are the ruling party. But in the election 2024, in political practices we have already exercised and run as the opposition on the field. Yes, it’s very unimaginable, but it happened.

Actually, this big disruption was not a new matter for us as a kader of the party. Since the new order under President Suharto regime, we face almost the same situation under oppressive authoritarian, intimidations, or something like that. Unfortunately, on the other side, the big home of democracy and political reformation has been destroyed on behalf of power competition, which we paid for with blood, sweat and tears in 1997 to 1998. The decline of democracy already happened in different ways in the election 2024. So I can say if we can identify too many, I can say.

And another one is digital harassment through TikTok platform and many others, some other social media platforms, directly to me as a member of parliament of PDIP and to be targeted specifically and the buzzers from the presidential competitors do many things to make me look bad, like political assassinations, something like that. And formed the public opinion about me and politics in bad ways, bad ways, bad words. Because we have militant kader, militant supporters. So although we spend a lot of time, effort, energy talking with them, that’s okay for the presidential election, we work hard.

We do hope that our presidential candidate can win the election. But on the other side, we also work on how to win the legislative elections. And at the same time my network volunteers work and silently talk to many, many supporters, constituents in Maluku in many ways, to make sure that the voters or the constituents who hold the vote rights can give their votes for the right persons, for the right candidates, members of parliaments to represent them and to make or amplify their voice and interest on the fields.

The Next Administration

Thank you, Bu Mercy. As you know, the Constitutional Court a few weeks ago has already ruled on the petition asking to disqualify the winning presidential candidate. And they’ve decided to reject that petition. Which means that there’s now no more legal way to change the results of the election. And given what you have said about all the violations that have happened and the lead up to the elections and during the election themselves, what do you think the prospects for human rights will be under this next presidential administration?

First, our president-elect has a track record on human rights issues under the President Suharto regime in new order regimes. I do pray that the human rights violation will never happen on behalf of the authority and power exercise or decision making in the next presidential administration.

When Prabowo wins the elections, it means on October 20 he will be inaugurated in the parliament. He’d become the president for all people in Indonesia, so we have hope for him to not make what happened in the new order era occur again in the next presidential administration.

The second one for the check and balance in the next presidential term. I suggest we wait and see. Because majority coalitions of the political parties now are sided to the president elect 2024, Pak Prabowo,  remain only PDIP. Because I read about the Prosperous Justice Party, the Muslim PKS party already gave a strong signal to the big coalitions to become part of the big coalition.

So it means that if PDIP takes a position as a political counterweight, I call it a political counterweight or counterbalance because in our political party law there is no terminology opposition party. So maybe I change it as a political counterweight or political counterbalance.

Still we have to work hard, very very hard to serve the nation and Indonesia people through our ideology pathway with our militant spirit, integrity and dignity. Yes, we may lose the presidential election but we win the legislative elections. This victory will bring a bright tiny spot of democracy in Indonesia in election 2024 and into the parliament. Hopefully this victory will not be destroyed like in 2014. The biggest coalition takes all, not the winner.

So we hope in a good manner and a transparent and accountable political practice. When we are inaugurated on 1st October, then PDIP still holds the position as a chair of parliament.

What can MPs do?

Thank you, Bu Mercy. As you said, PDIP might be the only party who will act as a political counterbalance in the next house. What do you think that parliamentarians can do as this counterbalance to help stop the democratic deterioration that you have described, as a member of parliament in the next house?

When we talk about the democracy backsliding and declining of democracy during the election 2024, I think it will be like an intercept valuable momentum for all of us as a policymaker, private sectors and other multi stakeholders to do a comprehensive review and evaluation about the trajectory of indonesian democracy in the future, including political system reform, political parties reforms.

In our party, we established a recruitment system of member and kader, training and capacity building systems and other ways to increase the capacity in political practices to increase the participation. But we don’t know the other party. So we do hope that one day all the parties can have a strong system to make the political practice and democracy can be upheld, including women participation, to ensure the recognition, protections and appreciation of just unaccountable democracy, fundamental freedom and human rights. It will bring fundamental changes in political practices and certainly protect MP’s at risk in all forms to exercise our mandate to serve the people effectively in the parliaments.

The other ones, how to foster the good habit, how to review the implementations of the law, the implementations of regulations, how to foster the good habit related with inclusive dialogue, not inter party in the parliament and governments, especially with our constituents.

So with the inclusive dialog we can protect, we can guard the process of the legislative process, political practices and democracy in a good way, in a good principle and in a good manners. 

And the other one is how to draft the law through the good principle of legislative process. About the good systems in the good principle, ethics of conduct for the corruption, collusion, nepotisms, buying articles, under table money behind the scenes. We hope that we can produce the best quality of the set of legislative productions from the legislative process.

The other important pillar is very important is the media advocacy. It’s very, very important. The perceived reality, the community, the people always think about the corruption among the MP’s, about the corruption, collusion and petition among the policymaker, governments, private sector, etcetera.

But honestly, truly, I can say that many of us have a strong commitment, have a strong desire, have a strong passion to work with our heart for our people, to serve our community, our constituents and how to meet up all their interests and their needs into the legislation, legislative process and become good policy making program, budget, etcetera, to serve our people in constituent area. So we do hope that the people, the community can support us.

What can Southeast Asian MPs do?

I have to say that not many members of parliament in Indonesia or in the other region, ASEAN countries have a good political will and willingness to work in human rights issues because sometimes there are some sensitive and critical issue, high risk and in a long term advocacy process which drain our energy, thoughts, timing, time consuming, money, assets, etcetera.

So again, as I mentioned before, that we work as an MP’s to our function and human rights issue will be like a knife of analysis on national development, policy making process, legislative process, etcetera.

I think the first one,

We have to increase the knowledge and critical awareness among us to get the common ground, common understanding, about our situation, about the declining democracy,

about many problems related to fundamental freedoms, freedom of religion and belief, about democracy, climate change and business issues, etcetera.

The second one is related to how to make a legal review and reform to help ASEAN region come to the one atmosphere conducive environment that is not oppressive, intimidating authoritarian power and there is true, just and accountable democracy, political practices, something like that.

Among all of us as a member of parliament in Indonesia or other ASEAN countries, we can do like a setup agenda setting together as a member of parliament, ASEAN Member of Parliament of Human Rights issue advocacy and we can categorize and prioritize all the human rights issues, fundamental freedom, democracy issues, because it’s very different from one country to another in asian region.

The third one is related with how to raise the same voice together with Malaysia, together with Singapore, together with Thai, together with the Philippines or other ASEAN countries, we can raise and amplify the same voice to advocate our better future related with the human rights issue, fundamental freedom, democracy, etcetera.

The other one is how to increase the capacity building among us through training, workshop, conference, webinar or maybe we can develop a printing toolkits for members of parliament like we already published in Malaysia last year. And maybe we can do another one like how to create and establish, develop, strengthen strategic networking and alliance among us, not only among member of parliaments, but ASEAN Member of parliament with regional, local, national, regional until global actors, CSOs, academician, women activists, youth activists, etcetera.

The fifth one is related to the media campaign. Members of parliaments have to make it as common tools to use various media platform communication platforms to campaign issues related with the human rights issue, fundamental freedom, digital freedom, education, health issues, about a reduction of poverty, ecological and environmental issue, climate change, etcetera.

The other one we have to set up like a one stop service database. Whoever can access our information about what we have already done and ongoing activities, programs, something like that, like international parliamentary inquiry, fact finding missions. It’s very, very important for us to create change not only at the strategic level, but also at the frontline, front level with the media, with the journalists, with the local actor, with all kind of activities and program we can do to you change our situation to become better environment of ASEAN region in the future.

Thank you very much Bu Mercy and thank you very much for taking the time to join us on this podcast.

That was an episode of “Advocate” by APHR, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

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Before we sign off, I would like to thank you for your support and for tuning in.

I’m Karina Tehusijarana, see you soon!

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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