Indonesia’s Besieged Lawmakers Shield Selves from the Law

Indonesia’s House of Representatives, its members dogged by what has been called the biggest scandal in the body’s history, has quietly enacted articles that would give it the ability to take legal action against those who “undermine its honor or that of its members,” and would stipulate that law enforcement investigations into members’ activities must first be considered by the House’s Ethics Council.

The law, known in Indonesia as the MD3 Law, was passed last week by the parliament, igniting a wave of protest by civil societies who have mounted an attack on it, fearing it would jeopardize free speech and democracy in addition to insulating lawmakers from legal action.

Among reform organizations who oppose the amendments are Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) and the Indonesian Center of Law and Policy Studies (PSHK). They have rallied support through an online petition in rejection of the revisions. More than 170,000 people have signed the petition demanding withdrawal of the amendments, and the pace of signatures is not abating.

In addition to reform organizations demanding that the amendments be canceled, several days after they were written into law, critics filed a request for judicial review by Constitutional Court. There was no indication whether the court would accede to their request.

The bill, however, has the support of eight political parties including President Joko Widodo’s own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Other leading parties are Golkar, the nation’s oldest – formerly headed by the now-disgraced Speaker of the House, Setya Novanto – and the Democratic Party headed by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The legislature is considered one of Southeast Asia’s most corrupt institutions. Last November Setya, who attended US President Donald Trump’s inauguration and was praised by him, was arrested by the country’s fearsome Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian initials KPK, on allegations he had diverted nearly US$170 million into lawmakers and others’ pockets out of a US$370 million contract to provide smart identification cards.

The KPK has alleged that more than 80 individuals, mostly lawmakers and parliamentary officials, participated in the scheme to defraud the project, which began in 2009. Some 37 lawmakers were said to have benefited from the scandal, including the current Minister of Justice, Yasonna Laoly, and former Interior Minister Gamawan Fauzi as well as Setya.

According to the KPK, lawmakers from across a range of parties were said to have conspired to drastically inflate the price tag of the project, reportedly dividing up cash openly in the halls of the parliament, with some taking up to US$5.5 million. It was called the largest corruption case in the history of the country’s legislative body.

Nor are the e-card conspirators alone. Since its inception in 2003, the KPK has brought a long list of lawmakers to justice and has achieved a 100 percent conviction rate.

How the new provisions got into the bill, an arcane affair that usually deals with the operations of the three bodies of government, isn’t clear. Journalists who cover the legislature said they weren’t included in a draft produced by the House Legislative Body, which argued that the new language is necessary to protect the house from “contempt of parliament.”

In addition, critics say, the new articles seem to have been hurriedly written in that they don’t specify what actions would be deemed disrespectful to the house or how the amendments would be carried out.

According to the Jakarta Post, when asked to cite an example of criticism that could land someone in jail, the committee deputy chairman Firman Subagyo said “The House is a state institution that deserves the same respect as the presidency. If you write all House members are corrupt, that is not allowed. Not all House members are corrupt.”

The Post quoted the latest Transparency International Indonesia (TII) survey, whose 1,000 respondents named the house as the state institution perceived as the most corrupt by the public. The March 2017 survey by TII, taken in 31 provinces across the country, showed that 54 percent of respondents named the House, not the police or tax office, as the most corrupt body.

"Through the MD3 Law, parliament has amassed more power as a legislative body … even surpassing the power of law enforcement authorities," said Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace in a statement issued on Feb. 15.

Hendardi, who like many Indonesians has only one name, charged that the amendment has shifted the ethics committee’s role to protecting the legislature from prosecution rather than acting as an ethics watchdog. "Overdosed protection for the House and the criminal threat for citizens as stipulated in the MD3 Law illustrates how the amendments have been compromised," Hendardi said.