Commentary: Calling for Indonesia's national referendum on capital punishment

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo.

With the government seemingly determined to execute all the remaining 58 people currently on death row, this would be a good time for the nation to launch a discourse on whether to retain or abolish capital punishment, and decide on the issue one way or another through a referendum.

This life-and-death matter has become too important to be decided by one or a handful of persons. Let the people have their say, after hearing the arguments from both sides. And while we are at it, the government should impose a stay of execution for all death-row inmates.

Indonesia recognises capital punishment in its legal system, but the Constitution also confers on the president the power to grant amnesty to all inmates, including the power to commute death penalties.

One would assume that the president would use this power with discretion. Not, as it turns out, with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

As soon as he came into office in October, he announced that he wanted everyone on death row, mostly for drug trafficking, executed. This amounted to a blanket rejection of all their clemency appeals, irrespective of their individual circumstances.

Jokowi argues that Indonesia is in a state of emergency with the drug menace out of control. He declared war on drug trafficking and that means everyone already sentenced to death must die. Six were executed last month and 10 more are to face the firing squad any day now.

Foreign leaders, including from Brazil, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Australia and France, have all pleaded with the Indonesian President to spare the lives of their citizens among those on death row. Jokowi rejected them, each time invoking Indonesia's sovereignty and its legal system, and explaining to them that he was in the middle of waging a war against drug traffickers.

These leaders have been around for much longer than Jokowi to be taught a lesson on national sovereignty. They were appealing to his sense of humanity and compassion and that he use his discretionary powers. Nothing more and nothing less. It is exactly what Jokowi expects when he pleads to Malaysian and Saudi leaders to spare the lives of Indonesians on death row there.

By invoking sovereignty, Jokowi has fired up Indonesian public opinion, with many responding by jumping even higher. They see the international pleas as an interference or an imposition for Indonesia's internal affairs, and call for the swift execution of foreign drug traffickers. They want blood.

Gone is the humble, all ears and soft-spoken Javanese man who captured the imagination of voters at last year's elections. In his place, we have a president who is projecting a tough and uncompromising image, and one that has little or no compassion so that he readily signs the death warrants of dozens of people on death row, without looking at their individual cases.

Jokowi, or his diplomats, should have handled the dispute more tactfully. Instead, they are showing an easy and fast way of losing friends.

How much real support the President does have in executing drug traffickers is difficult to gauge without a referendum. Current sentiments cannot be used to reflect the public's opinion about capital punishment, not in the absence of a full debate that hears the full arguments on both sides.

President Jokowi's chief arguments for executing drug traffickers cannot be accepted at face value just because he has been parroting them: That 50 people die each day of drug addiction and that 4.5 million people in the country are victims of drug abuse.

That Indonesia is a haven for drug traffickers may be true, but isn't this more the problem of law enforcement? When it comes to drug addiction, shouldn't the first line of defence be the family, school and community? Scapegoating and executing drug traffickers will not solve the problem.

The jury is still out on whether or not capital punishment is an effective deterrent. Indonesia is one of 57 countries that still retain the death penalty while 140 others have abolished it.

It came close to abolishing capital punishment in 2008 when the Constitutional Court ruled 5-4 in favour of retention. Given that the Constitution allows for a national referendum, it is time to let people decide whether to abolish or retain capital punishment.

The abolitionists finally have an icon to lead their campaign. Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama has publicly spoken up against capital punishment. More public figures like him should come and join the campaign.

Jokowi may find that some religious leaders willingly endorse his executions, but religious principles also give the most compelling reason to abolish the death penalty. Yes, some religions allow the killing of others under certain circumstances, but almost all major religions of peace, including Islam, encourage compassion, and that it is better to forgive than to slay your enemies.

Obviously, it is difficult to expect President Jokowi to back off from his plan to execute those on death row, even if he wants to now, having personally set off the motion when he openly declared the war on drugs and drove public opinion to his side.

But by calling for a referendum on capital punishment, preceded by a national debate, this would give the perfect pretext for the government to stop all executions for now.

More than to save the lives of two Australians and all other foreigners on death row, a moratorium on executions would save Jokowi from making the biggest mistake of his presidency.

Most important of all, it would save Indonesia.

The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post.