Indonesia’s Nazaruddin Mess

Allegations of corruption tarnish the ruling party but the trail leads everywhere and nowhere.

An extraordinary letter apparently written last week by Muhammad Nazaruddin, the former fugitive and onetime treasurer of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, is shaking the country’s politics to the core ahead of 2014 national elections.

The increasingly murky Nazaruddin affair does not augur well for international investors who may have hoped that the country’s rising economic prowess would result in an equally rational political and governmental environment. The letter was made public by OC Kaligis, Nazaruddin’s lawyer, saying in effect that Nazaruddin would shut up about crimes committed by the Democrats if Yudhoyono would guarantee his family’s safety, leading to the obvious if unproven conclusion that the party’s leaders are culpable in as-yet-undisclosed offenses. Analysts say it smacks of a cover-up that could wreck the part y.

Founded in 2001, the Democrat Party came into power in the 2004 national elections, almost solely on Yudhoyono’s popularity as a reformer who ran afoul of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri while serving in her cabinet. Those who look most guilty are the young reformers Yudhoyono brought into power with him, particularly Party Chairman Anas Urbaningrum, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Marzuki Alie, and Youth and Sports Minister, Andi Mallarangeng.

All of this has left Yudhoyono looking dazed, issuing statements that the party should be cleaned up but not saying how. Bloggers and critics have been raising suspicions that members of Yudhoyono’s own family might be involved in the corruption, causing him to denounce the media.

Looking ahead less than three years to national elections, the second and third-biggest parties Golkar, headed by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), headed by Megawati are the likely beneficiaries, although neither seems to know just how to capitalize on the Democrats’ woes given that a large part of the mess turns on shady finances that are common to all Indonesian political parties.

Bakrie remains deeply unpopular for a long string of reasons, not the least of which was the Lapindo Brantas gas well blowout in Surabaya five years ago that created a stinking mud lake that has inundated scores of villages. Megawati is considered to be a spent force and the PDI-P rudderless. Both parties are regarded as deeply corrupt. One long-shot beneficiary could be Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of the strongman Suharto and one-time head of Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, who during East Timor’s independence fight was accused of involvement in murder, rape and plunder. He heads Gerindra, a small party, but served as Megawati’s running mate in the 2009 election.

If any of them can slip into the vacuum created by the Democrats’ expected implosion, it could signal that Indonesia is about to return to the dark days of business-dominated politics after a brief interregnum in which Yudhoyono allowed the ousted finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the opportunity to try to clean up the government. She has said that she was driven from government by Bakrie before she made much progress. Bakrie was accused at that point of evading more than US$1 billion in taxes on three of his companies.

Although Sri Mulyani has been proposed as a presidential candidate, she lacks any meaningful party structure. Optimists point to the fact that Yudhoyono’s own Democratic Party held fewer than 3 percent of the seats in the national legislature when he started his first race for the presidency. But Yudhoyono at that point tied his fortunes to Golkar by making Jusuf Kalla, then the head of the party, his vice presidential running mate. There is currently no reform party in Indonesia big enough to carry Sri Mulyani to the polls, although her supporters have been courting the Democrats for months in search of a miracle. She is also outside the country, working as one of three managing directors of the World Bank, and has not said she would return.

Nazaruddin’s letter caps a long string of incidents surrounding his flight from Indonesia in May after meeting with the president and other officials, the last of which was House Speaker Marzuki. Nazaruddin was able to leave Indonesia on his own passport just days ahead of an immigration hold order requested by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) over millions dollars in bribes paid to build the athletes’ village in Palembang for the upcoming Southeast Asian Games. That raised suspicions that the Democrats wanted him as far away as possible from the clutches of the KPK.

After spending weeks texting, tweeting and Skyping journalists with a list of specific allegations against Anas and other top party members, Nazaruddin was arrested on Aug. 7 by Colombian immigration officials on orders from Interpol in Cartagena, a resort city on the northeast coast of Colombia. The Colombians immediately agreed to his extradition. After his arrest, instead of putting him on a commercial flight with an escort back to Jakarta, the government chartered a 12-passenger Gulfstream executive jet for the equivalent of US$470,000. The delegation sent to pick him up included a flock of law enforcement officials from agencies whose honesty has long been questioned. It did not include his lawyer.

The aircraft finally landed in Jakarta 17 hours after its scheduled arrival on Aug. 13 after supposedly stopping six times in such places as Senegal and Congo despite the fact that the plane’s 12,000 km range meant it could easily have made it back on a single pit stop. It is a mystery what took place during those six stops,

He was then bustled off to jail and has since appeared before the KPK, which is not only looking into bribes over the Southeast Asian Games but another 35 government projects at several other ministries worth a combined total of Rp 6.04 trillion, (US$706.33 million). He has since said he can’t remember anything at all, but then said through Kaligis, his lawyer, that he would send letters to several NGOs and the press although Kaligis didn’t say what would be in the letters. Kaligis told reporters Nazaruddin doesn’t trust the handling of the cases by the KPK.

Kaligis showed reporters the letter to Yudhoyono after Nazaruddin's questioning at KPK on Thursday. In it, Nazaruddin wrote, “I beg you to immediately sentence me without my having to undergo any court hearings to defend my rights. I am willing to be imprisoned for years as long as you can promise to provide peace of mind for my family, especially for my wife and children.”

The KPK has since announced that Nazaruddin’s wife, Neneng Sri Wahyuni, is wanted by Interpol as a suspect for acting as a broker in a case involving a Rp 3.8 billion solar power project at the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration. At last report, she was believed to be headed for Kuala Lumpur, where the couple’s two children currently live.

But as with most things in this mess, no one knows for sure.

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