Can Indonesia Save the Last Reformasi Remnants?

Will the greatest gifts of reformasi in Indonesia that were born out of the 1998 fall of Suharto -- an independent presidency and a Corruption Eradication Commission, be destroyed in 2015? The prospects don’t look good.

On May 22, 1998, I sat on the lawns outside Indonesia’s House of Representatives and listened to students talking about the country’s rosy new future. It was only a day since Suharto’s resignation. Indonesia’s brightest youth were there, and they were all full of optimism.

To understand the importance of 2015 as a crossroads in Indonesian history, we can compare the collapse of the 1998-2003 reformasi movement with the threatened subversion of President Joko Widodo’s reform plans today.

It was hunger that fed reformasi -- not the poor people’s hunger for food. The poor had not really had a voice or united movement since the brutal obliteration of the Communist Party, socialist movements and union movements in 1965. Reformasi was fed by the educated classes’ hunger for a fairer Indonesia.

The presidencies of BJ Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid – Gus Dur – responded to this hunger by instituting reforms. Habibie reduced the number of seats given to the military in the nation’s House of Representatives and organized democratic elections. Gus Dur made conciliatory approaches to separatist movements in Papua and Aceh to seek compromise solutiona. He also removed the Suharto-era ban on the use of the Chinese language, tried to promote reformist generals within military ranks, and followed through a process initiated by Habibie to decentralize fiscal authority away from Jakarta.

History puts the students at the forefront of the reformasi movement. In truth, the movement was quickly captured by conservative forces that remained in control of the parliament, the judiciary, the military, the civil service and most political parties. Through 1998 to 2003, the few influential reformists struggled against two debilitating Suharto legacies. The first was a massive debt that consumed 50 percent of Indonesia’s 1999 budget, 40 percent of its 2000 budget and 31 percent of its 2001 budget. The second was a cabal of cashed-up cronies who had milked the government and enjoyed legal impunity under Suharto and wanted to retain their privileges. Indonesia was not truly free of the shackles of the Suharto era.

Habibie was undermined by his military in East Timor and by pressure to drop corruption charges against Suharto. In October 1999, he was ousted by his own political party, Golkar, the façade democratic party manufactured by Suharto to placate the Americans.

Gus Dur, a moderate Muslim cleric who replaced Habibie as President in October 1999, faced even wider resistance. The military publicly voiced dissatisfaction with some of his decisions, like his decision to remove former general Wiranto from his cabinet and to promote reformist general Agus Wirahadikusuma. The International Monetary Fund decided in December 2000 to postpone a US$400 million loan and the World Bank decided in January 2001 to reduce its loan commitment from US$1.2 billion to just US$400 million, following Gus Dur’s refusal to follow their policy advice for repaying the Suharto-era debts. As the economy continued sinking, he was ousted in July 2001 by the same House of Representatives that had elected him less than two years before.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, who followed Gus Dur into office, took a back seat during the halcyon days of reformasi. With her ascendancy, there was no further military reform, no serious effort to negotiate with separatist movements and a clear preference for filling positions with Suharto-era cronies ahead of reformist leaders. She has thus been stamped a non-reformist. Yet the two mechanisms that give greatest hope to reformers in 2015 were in fact built during the early years of Megawati’s presidency. The first was an amendment to the Constitution enabling the president to be directly elected by the people instead of by the parliament. The second was the establishment of the Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its initials KPK. These reforms were introduced in the dying gasps of reformasi. By the time famed human rights activist Munir was murdered in September 2004, reformasi had already been dead for a year.

The biggest flaw of reformasi was that key institutions had remained in the hands of Suharto’s cronies. They were the ones with all the money, so they just needed to re-design a system where power required money. During the Suharto era, power required money and military might. But during the new century, power would just require money. The English-speaking world could call it “democracy” or anything else they wanted, as long as power required money.

No institution reflected the new rules more than the nation’s parliament. As one ex-parliamentarian explained, in 1999 a candidate needed US$10,000 to US$20,000 to campaign for parliament. By 2009, candidates needed at least US$330,000 just to be considered a strong contender. And in the list of least trusted institutions, the nation’s House of Representatives was rising fast. In a 2009 survey, the perennial in-your-face corruption of the nation’s police force had ensured it first place but the house didn’t even make the top five. By 2012, the house had wrested first place as Indonesia’s most corrupt institution, with the tax office coming in second and the police force coming in third. Again, the temptation to corruption among House members was attributed to “the high cost of launching a political career in the House”. Suharto-era cronies had built a system that protected their interests.

The priorities of the House of Representatives are reflected in the growing gap between rich and poor. In fact by some measures, the gulf between rich and poor has widened in Indonesia more than in any other developing country in the past 10 years. The priorities of the House of Representatives are also reflected in their belligerent support for Budi Gunawan, a senior policeman who was signalled as a graft suspect by the KPK long before Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle [PDI-P] pushed for his nomination to lead the police force. That the PDI-P and other parties could have such complete disregard for public opinion also says something about their priorities.

In the 17 years since 1998, the student movement has moved from omnipotent to impotent, and the pursuit of a fairer Indonesia is now led by the KPK. Now that it is clashing with the House of Representatives and the Suharto-era remnants of the police force, we know it is serious. If it wasn’t clashing with such corrupt institutions, it wouldn’t be doing its job.

When the KPK tried to prevent the appointment of Budi Gunawan as Indonesia’s Chief of Police, Budi’s allies in the police force struck back by filing criminal complaints against four KPK leaders, one of whom was briefly detained. Two– Bambang Widjojanto and Abraham Samad – have been named suspects and have been stood down pending the result of the police investigation. Jokowi at the same time withdrew Budi’s nomination and instead nominated Badrodin Haiti, another senior policeman with a similarly shady background.

This sidelining of Budit and the two KPK leaders has been painted as a compromise but actually the House of Representatives and corrupt elements of the police force have lost nothing. In fact, Badrodini should have no trouble gaining support of the house and senior police because they know he’ll protect their interests. A senior parliamentarian for the opposition Gerindra Party, Martin Hutabarat, was already pushing Badrodin as a potential chief back in 2013 and Budi’s legal adviser has claimed that Budi himself proposed Badrodin to replace him.

The two men who have been temporarily appointed to lead the remodelled Corruption Eradication Commission have a history of a cozy relationship with corrupt officials. One was a legal adviser for corrupt officials like former high court judge Akil Mochtar and for Suharto himself, while the other prided himself on not confronting the police force during an earlier stint as KPK leader. The first big test of Jokowi’s ability to fight corruption has been a victory for the corrupt.

But for Indonesia to emerge from 2015 as a fairer society, Indonesians need to stop viewing the current clash as Jokowi’s problem. It’s all Indonesians’ problem. The country has a system that is pushing clean, independent individuals all the way to becoming governors and even the Indonesian President. This part of the system is drawing admiration from around the world. But the House of Representatives has become increasingly self-serving and is clearly an element of Indonesia’s political system that requires review. Jokowi is caught between the moral imperative of supporting the KPK and the need for cooperation from a corrupt house and corrupt upper echelons of the police force.

Warren Doull is a pseudonym for an official who has lived and worked extensively in Indonesia and Timor Leste, including for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor in 2002.