Indonesia’s Jokowi Dares Public Anger Over Corruption Watchdog’s Fall

With his second-term inauguration just three days away, Indonesian President Joko Widodo is under intense criticism from student groups and others for his October 16 decision to allow legislation to pass into law hamstringing the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the country’s most respected public institution.

Students returned to the streets today (October 17) in front of the State Palace in protest of the president’s refusal to issue a Perppu, or letter in lieu of legislation, voiding the bill, which was to take effect today. Muhammad Nurdiyansyah, the coordinator of the Center for All Indonesia BEM Alliance, said the protest would go forward. The protest was in defiance of a police order refusing to issue permits for demonstrations until after the president’s October 20 inauguration.

The KPK, apparently not intimidated by the threat to its powers, arrested the mayor of the city of Medan shortly before the revision of the law was to go into effect, and followed that up with another raid against the head of a regional National Road Implementation Agency and charged him with receiving bribes related to road projects in East Kalimantan.

Jokowi, as the president is known, found himself in an untenable situation, with public groups and reformers demanding that he issue the veto at the same time powerful forces aligned with his presidency were demanding that the bill become law to shortstop the KPK’s phenomenally effective record in putting politicians and other public figures in jail.

Especially they are seeking to put a stop to a seven-year investigation into massive bribes paid to a substantial proportion of the House of Representatives over the implementation of a smart identification card for Indonesia’s 320 million citizens. The scandal over the ID cards, called e-KTP cards, has already claimed the career of former House Speaker Setya Novanto and is said to have cost the taxpayers the equivalent of US$162 million.

The legislation effectively ends investigations that take more than two years, also ending the KPK’s investigation into the theft of billions of dollars in circumstances surrounding the onetime Bank Century, which is now in the hands of the Japanese financial conglomerate J Trust.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the doyenne of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, to which he nominally belongs, has asserted her power over the president, who has had to fall in line with her demands. Some sources said Jokowi could face not only a veto backlash if he were to issue the Perppu, or even the threat of impeachment. That leaves him scrambling for how to deal with the increasingly assertive student movement, which took to the streets at the start of the month in a burst of unrest that has left at least three students dead and reform organizations demanding an answer.

In any case, the controversy, complicated by his vice president’s demand for legislation that would have criminalized unmarried sex and penalized gay and lesbian relations, among other stringent provisions as a growing Islamist movement sweeps the country. Women’s groups and rights activists demanded that the criminal code revision containing the sex penalties be withdrawn, further eroding Jokowi’s credibility as a reformer when he delayed his decision to kill it. As it is, it could be introduced in a year.

The question is whether the president’s limited attempts at reform are now endangered – by the PDI-P as much as anybody, given its ration of corrupt political figures – although a large percentage of the political establishment are solidly behind the limitation of the powers of the KPK, and thus the danger in the House of Representatives.

The powers of the crooked class were threatened earlier this year when the president designated his law minister to sign a mutual legal assistance agreement to seek to track money laundered out of the country and parked in Swiss banks. Jokowi also earlier this year appointed the respected 55-year-old economist Destry Damayanti as senior deputy governor of Bank Indonesia, the country’s central bank, believed to be a signal that the administration was serious about cleaning up the corruption-ridden financial system.

Singapore banks are the repository of tens of billions of dollars of money stolen by Indonesian politicians and bankers. Any attempt to get that money back runs against the wishes of a startling percentage of Indonesia’s political and financial ruling class.

It appears that Jokowi’s clout will be tested with the naming of his new cabinet. He had earlier promised a wide range of new faces to change the direction of the government. The makeup of the cabinet, due on October 20, is likely to be a harbinger of the direction of the country as well. But the makeup of the forces arrayed against him – Muslims wanting stricter religious law, civil society wanting a cleanup of corruption, his own party ignoring him, a corrupt political class out for its own gain, all of which left him isolated as he said, doesn’t bode well.