By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita

With 2019 elections looming next April 19, Indonesia’s General Election Commission (KPU) is  seeking to bar prospective local lawmakers who have been convicted of corruption, a move regarded with little enthusiasm from the country’s political parties, whose members passed a law in February in the House of Representatives that not only immunized them from corruption charges but gives them the power to take action against their accusers.

Corruption is an issue that Indonesia has struggled with since independence at the end of World War II.  The affliction deepened during the corrupt 31-year of the strongman Suharto from 1967 until he fell from power in 1998. His family has been credibly suspected of looting the country of billions of dollars. Transparency International ranks the country 96th of 180 countries in its corruption perceptions index, a score that seems more hopeful than the situation on the ground makes it look.

Despite the 15-year sentence for corruption earlier this year of the once-powerful Setya Novanto, formerly chairman of Golkar Party and speaker of the House of Representatives. there is a growing awareness that Indonesia, ranking far down the global tables, needs state officials who can uphold integrity and be corruption free.  At least 37 members of the house have been implicated in the scandal that brought down Setya. As many as 90 people are said to have been involved.

The Corruption Eradication Commission so far has jailed 88 government officials and lawmakers since its creation, achieving a 100 percent conviction rate.  President Joko Widodo, elected as a reformer, has been largely unable to stem the tide of corruption. Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) recently reported an increase of corruption cases from 482 in 2016 to 576 in 2017, an increase directly proportional to the ballooning of official state losses from Rp1.5 trillion US$106.74 million to Rp6.5 trillion in 2017. One case  involving bribes paid for the introduction of a new smart identification card, called the e-KTP,  cost the country Rp2.3 trillion.  That case resulted in Setya’s jailing.

Reflection from 2018 election

The new rules for the upcoming election – if they can be enforced –are a reflection of the current situation in which local polls are to be held on June 27 to elect 17 governors, 39 mayors and 115 regents across the country, The attempts to filter candidates who wish to contest those elections are regarded as ineffective in giving people a choice of qualified candidates with integrity.

Devolution of power from Jakarta to the provinces, hailed after the fall of Suharto as a necessary reform, has resulted in devolving corruption to the regional level as well, where it remains stubbornly embedded.  In March, the election commission chairman, Agus Rahardjo, said that of the hundreds of prospective regional heads, 34 candidates are strongly suspected of corruption. However, the 2018 election rules continue to allow those convicted of corruption to participate, impelling voters to ask what would happen if they were to win and become elected regional heads.

Throughout 2017 1,298 individuals were suspected of corruption, 30 of whom are already serving as regional heads of government. In the past four months, 10 designated Regional Heads of government have been identified by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), namely the Jambi Governor, the Regent of Hulu Sungai Tengah, the Kebumen Regent, the Regent of Jombang, the Regent of Ngada, the East Halmahera Regent, the Regent of Subang, the Regent of Mojokerto, the West Bandung Regent, and Central Lampung Regent.

It is hardly news that regional heads have been caught by the KPK, a fearsome organization that is regarded as incorruptible, because they wanted to gather resources to take part in the next election. Although this is not always the case, there are many instances where government officials are convicted of corruption, reinstated, and found guilty of corruption all over again, such as is the case with  two officials in Indragiri Hulu, in Riau, 1,100 km north of Jakarta.

Rejection from Political Parties

However, almost all the political parties have rejected the guidelines, saying the 2017 election law doesn’t require legislative candidates to be clear of corruption. They have also asked for corruption cases to be exempted from being dealt with as criminal acts. The Constitutional Court, they say, allows former criminal convicts to participate in the elections, provided the demands of imprisonment of at least five years have been met and the offender has completed his or her sentence. The parties have also argued that former convicts have redeemed themselves via their sentences. Therefore, they argue, it is an injustice if they were discriminated against by being restricted in the election.

Regulatory aspect

Indeed, the election commission’s proposal is nothing new. The plan departs from a 2017 election law which has formed the basis of the rules for the Presidential and Legislative Elections. The law says that people convicted of corruption cases will be barred because it disqualifies them as candidates for president and vice president.

Although until now the prohibitions have been limited to the presidential and vice-presidential nominations,  there are fundamental reasons why the legislative elections can also apply this rule. The Office of the Board of Representatives (DPR), the Regional Representatives Council (DPRD), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) are strategic positions / directly elected by the people through elections, similar the presidential election.

The basis of this regulation is that corruption is perceived as one of the forms of crime that is closely linked to the practice of treason against the state. This is so because corruption is a form of power abuse. When convicted of corruption, the offender is considered to have betrayed the country.

Ending Political Patronage

Electoral fraud is hardly unusual. Indonesian elections are often marred by money politics to buy votes. No one can guarantee that the political cheating by buying votes will not happen, especially by those who have a poor track record. Moreover, the majority of poor people who are often targeted for pay have severe financial difficulties. They are hungry and frustrated. Their rationality can be bought by few sheets of rupiah. Disorientation is what will cause the voters to no longer consider who and how the track record of their qualifications.

Integrity Crisis and Restoring Public Trust

It is very important that the election rules must be designed as ideal as possible so that the elected will be those who have high qualifications and integrity. Often, individuals choose not to go into politics because of their abysmal skepticism and antipathy against dirty political practices. However, with the removal of opportunities via the election commission’s regulations of convicted criminals it is expected people with clean records will participate. 

To carry out the functions of the electoral commission in conducting democratic and integrated elections, the commission is designed to play a vital role in protecting voters to have the choice of moral, honest candidates. Its alignment in achieving clean elections and the election of highly qualified persons needs to be supported at all levels of society. Those convicted of corruption have failed to carry out their mandate and have betrayed the public trust.  

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita write regularly on Indonesian social issues