With Indonesia’s regional elections underway on June 27, 152 million Indonesian voters will choose governors, regents, mayors and representatives simultaneously in 13 provinces, 115 districts and 39 cities across the country in a process that is rife with bribery and influence-peddling.
Data collected by the country’s formidable Corruption Eradication Commission show that 78 regional heads have been tried on various corruption cases over the past 15 years. Since January alone, at least seven regional heads have been arrested on various charges of bribery and abuse of power. One, for instance, was Nyono Suharli, the regent of Jombang, who received bribes related to the licensing of government offices. The bribes were to be used for Nyono to fund his 2018 campaign.
Abdon Nababan, a prominent community activist in North Sumatra, described a typical case – involving his own abortive run for power. The country’s political mafia block independent candidates, he said, to effect make “investments” in people they can control through bribery. The system itself in effect thus blocks genuine independent candidates by making the nomination process nearly insurmountable.
"The conditions set (for independent candidates) by the electoral system in Indonesia are too heavy, and only rich persons and those sustained by (political) investors have the opportunity to run for election," Nababan said.
Nababan for the past 20 years has championed the rights of indigenous peoples over their ancestral lands through the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN). He was rewarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award in August 2017 for his dedication to protecting the rights of indigenous people.
Encouraged to seek office to combat corruption and the sway of the so-called “land mafia,” Nababan said, he decided to run as an independent for governor in North Sumatra – one of the provinces whose leaders have often been arrested for corruption – in the upcoming local elections. Although not affiliated with a political party, surveys indicated that he would be one of the strongest candidates.
Political Dowries A Bar
Regional candidates usually seek to run as independents because it is considered cheaper than running through a political party, which requires candidates to put up what is described as a "political dowry" in order to be nominated for election. In fact, the requirement to run as an independent is equally difficult, since the candidates must collect the signatures and copies of the ID cards of at least 800,000 voters.
Nababan and his volunteers collected hundreds of thousands of signatures in four months before the General Election Commission (KPU) closed the registration process. His efforts failed because he was only able to collect 560,000, falling 260,000 short.
"The distance between my appointment as a candidate with the closing of the registration was too short so we didn’t have enough time to gather support," he said.
Shockingly, Nababan said he had been approached by a group of people he called "bandars" or political investors who offered him the chance to run through their political party, which he didn’t name, promising him up to Rp300 billion (US$21 million) to deliver victory.
"A month after the announcement of my candidacy, around August 2017, someone contacted me to request a meeting to discuss political support," Nababan said. He subsequently met with three unnamed individuals who offered financial support in return allowing them control of the government after the election .
"They told me that they would prepare Rp300 billion for various expenses in my campaign," Nababan said. "I do not know who they are but I think they have access to political parties, and they have big (financial) capital," he said.
He assumed they represented a group of influential people in plantations, mining and property, he said, all of which have long-term economic interests in North Sumatra. In order for their business activities to run smoothly, he alleged, they were looking for elected leaders who would make it easy to provide licenses and commission projects.
Nababan is not alone. Faisal Basri, an economic analyst and political activist who ran as an independent for the governorship of Jakarta in 2012, told the highly-regarded Jakarta-based newsmagazine Tempo (tempo.co) that he had been offered financial support of up to Rp200 billion (US$14 million) in return for promising to facilitate the donor’s project in the Sundae Kelapa port area in Jakarta.
But the offer was rejected. "Such a fund could trap us," Basri told Tempo.
High Political Costs
Donal Fariz, the coordinator of the corruption division of the Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW), said bribery occurs throughout the entire nomination process until the election. Fariz divides the system into three levels: pre-candidacy, candidate determination, and post-election.
"All three levels are highly loaded with transactions and bribes," Donal said. At the pre-candidacy level, the prospective candidate’s "dowry" value reaches hundreds of billions of rupiah, paid to the party in order to be nominated. The electoral system requires that candidates gain support at least 20 percent of the party's votes in the legislature.
"At this stage the political cost becomes the highest," Fariz said, although he said he couldn’t confirm the size of the bribes to lawmakers. "If we asked to the candidates, they would not answer. If we asked the party, they would not admit it, even they claim to be the party who spend money," he said.
However, some candidates have complained about the huge sums they have been asked for the dowries. In January, La Nyalla Mattalitti, the chairman of the East Java Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), claimed he had been asked for Rp40 billion (US$3 million) by Gerindra Party Chairman Prabowo Subianto, the failed 2014 presidential candidate, in return for the party's support in the East Java gubernatorial election.
Others are Dedi Mulyadi, a candidate for the governorship of West Java, who said he had also been asked for Rp10 billion (US$740,000) by an unnamed individual in Golkar, the country’s oldest party, to smooth his candidacy. Brig. Gen. Siswandi claimed the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) turned him down as a candidate for the Ceribon seat when he refused to pay a dowry. The Hanura Party reportedly suffered internal conflicts due to the same issue. Prabowo, Gerindra, Golkar, PKS, and Hanura have all denied asking for dowries.
Fariz of the ICW said he believes many other cases are not revealed to the public. In addition to political dowries, there are also “survey fees” by particular institutions to raise candidates’ electability, he said. The second level is candidate determination, which is the major cost required for campaign attributes and props, as well as bribes to voters.
As for the post-election level, bribes are usually awarded to election organizers from the lowest level to the most strategic one, including bribes to law enforcement officials dealing with electoral disputes. The Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Akil Mochtar, was thrown into prison by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for accepting bribes in adjudicating disputes over regional gubernatorial elections in 2014.
Consequences of Corrupt Process
The transactional and corrupt spaces have long-term consequences, such as the many heads of regions who abuse their power for corruption. "So do not be surprised why many elected regional heads are ultimately involved in various corruption scandal," Fariz said.
"The system has to be improved because this kind of (corrupt) system is very expensive for good and potential people," Nababan said. It will be almost impossible for Indonesia to elect independent, viable candidates without such reform.
Ainur Rohmah (email@example.com) is a Jakarta-based correspondent and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.