Indonesia’s political elites drive anti-graft agency into jeopardy

The Indonesian public is demanding President Joko Widodo act decisively to save the country’s anti-corruption agency (KPK) from being undermined by the police. AAP/Dani Daniar

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is often hailed as an example of a successful anti-corruption agency. KPK’s workload is enormous as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy continues to be riddled with corruption, but its track record serves as a benchmark for anti-corruption agencies in countries grappling with the problem.

But while KPK wins acclaim around the world, Indonesia’s own political elite is driving the agency towards a perilous fate while destabilising President Joko Widodo’s (popularly known as Jokowi) leadership.

The leadership of Indonesia’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and their political allies, who backed Jokowi’s run for office, are undermining his government by pushing for a suspect candidate for chief of police. They are leaving Jokowi to deal with police reprisals after the KPK declared the nominated candidate a graft suspect.

The public is pressuring the president to act decisively to end this political farce.

Behind the case against the KPK

Behind the weakening of KPK is a story of politics, rivalries and brinkmanship at the cost of progress in the country’s fight against corruption.

Three months into office, Jokowi is facing his biggest crisis of credibility to date. He came to power using the PDI-P ticket but with very limited backing from its party machinery. PDI-P chairwoman and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri reluctantly gave up her presidential ambitions to support the extremely popular Jokowi.

As someone from outside Indonesia’s political establishment and without solid financial resources, Jokowi had only his integrity and a promise of change to buoy him. The Indonesian public supported him because of this. They were naive to believe this would be enough to empower him to defeat the corrupt old guard.

The first reality check came in the final line-up of his cabinet ministers. Half were politicians from the coalition that backed him. After their first taste of disappointment, the public, understanding the demands of realpolitik on Jokowi, eventually let it slide.

When Jokowi appointed as attorney-general a politician from the National Democratic Party, one of the parties in PDI-P’s coalition, doubts set in again. The public criticised the president for not being transparent in the process. He did not involve the KPK and the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (PPATK) as he had done when he chose his cabinet.

Jokowi then repeated his “mistake” by nominating Budi Gunawan, a high-ranking police officer who failed the KPK/PPATK screening for prospective cabinet ministers, as the sole candidate for chief of police. Gunawan, a police general suspected of having “fat bank accounts” of allegedly illicit money, has close ties to Megawati, having been her presidential aide in 2004.

PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri reluctantly gave up her presidential ambition to support the more popular Joko Widodo’s run for president. EPA/Mast Irham

No-one had expected Jokowi to nominate someone who had already been struck from the initial list. The public began questioning Jokowi’s commitment to fighting corruption. The KPK immediately named Gunawan as a graft suspect.

Despite KPK’s charges, the parliament quickly approved the nomination, leaving the president no time to retract his nomination. Jokowi found himself unexpectedly cornered by parliament and his own party into installing a graft suspect as chief of police.

The emasculation of KPK

In retaliation at the naming of Gunawan as a graft suspect, the police are now targeting KPK commissioners for criminal investigations.

KPK commissioner Bambang Widjoyanto. EPA/STR

On January 23, armed police detained KPK commissioner Bambang Widjoyanto. The police accused him of forcing a witness to commit perjury in a 2010 election dispute when Widjoyanto was a private lawyer. Since his questioning, the police are investigating all remaining KPK commissioners.

The police accuse KPK chief Abraham Samad of having had political ambitions to become Widodo’s running mate, putting his ethics in question; commissioner Adnan Pandu Praja of alleged fraud involving a timber company in 2006; and commissioner Zulkarnain of receiving bribes when he was chief prosecutor in East Java province in 2009.

All these cases are unrelated to the KPK and occurred prior to the commissioners being appointed in 2011. If the police were to follow through on these reports, all the commissioners would be sidelined and the KPK emasculated.

Public demands to save KPK

These events have galvanised civil society to show their support for the KPK and their anger at police moves against the anti-graft agency, which is not for the first time. In 2009 and 2012, police also arrested KPK commissioners on dubious charges after the latter investigated police corruption.

A high-ranking police officer compared KPK attempts to take on the police to a gecko fighting a crocodile. The 2009 and 2012 “Gecko versus Crocodile” rifts, however, were purely cases of the police taking on the KPK. This time political parties are joining in.

Indonesians are demanding the government, the police and political elites abide by the rules of good governance. Concerned citizens have taken the streets to protest. Lecturers from major universities have declared their stand. Public figures, including religious leaders, are lending their weight to the KPK’s fight against corruption. 

The public is calling for the government to apply the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) Article 6.2, which mandates governments to support anti-graft agencies to carry out their functions effectively. The government is also being urged to follow the 2012 Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies.

Does Jokowi have a ‘grand plan’?

To help him resolve his quandary, Jokowi set up an independent team of nine prominent figures to make recommendations on the issue. They recommended that Jokowi order the resignation of anyone in Polri and KPK who has been named as a criminal suspect. The team also recommended he not inaugurate a graft suspect as police chief.

Jokowi has yet to comment definitively on what he plans to do. In a twist of irony, while his own political party is undermining him, he met his rival in the presidential race, Prabowo Subianto, who declared he would support Jokowi’s decision.

Is Jokowi signalling to his own party that he can jump the fence to his former opponent’s camp? If so, he risks losing the support base that campaigned so strongly against Prabowo, the ex-military man with a questionable human rights record.

Will Prabowo’s support give Jokowi the nerve to defy his own party and end Gunawan’s candidacy as police chief? If Jokowi does not act decisively, will the police continue their attack on the KPK? Does the president have the courage to protect the institution at all costs?

As rumours of a police raid on the KPK office circulate, Jokowi is carrying on as if he has everything under control. So confident is he that he went on state visits to Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Joko Widodo (left) visited the Philippines while Indonesia grapples with the KPK versus police saga. Does he have a ‘grand plan’ to save the KPK? EPA/Francis R. Malasig

Perhaps Jokowi is a sophisticated political strategist with a “grand plan” that is as opaque as a Javanese wayang performance. Maybe he is concealing a strategy that may rid him of the shackles of PDI-P and other political interests that are preventing him from delivering on his promises of reform and clean government. Or he might simply be a naive political leader on the brink of compromising his moral values.

If the latter is the case, and he sacrifices the KPK and the anti-corruption movement, Jokowi will surely end up being tossed about like a football by political interests, abandoned by the people who once supported him so passionately.

We will know soon enough.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.