Indonesia’s Joko Searches for Honest Men

As an illustration of the uphill battle Indonesian President Joko Widodo faces, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has flagged at least eight of the 43 potential candidates he submitted to the agency for vetting as corruption risks, the president said Wednesday.

Joko on Wednesday told reporters that eight potential ministers were rejected by the KPK, which has never been asked to vet appointees before. He said he had replacements for the tarnished hopefuls.

“Eight names have been banned. I can’t mention them. Yes, they have been replaced,” Joko said.

"This is pretty stunning. Never before has anyone thought of actually vetting the integrity of cabinet ministers here,” said a Jakarta-based political analyst. “I understand a number of people have withdrawn from the process because they do not want the KPK poking into their accounts. But ordinary Indonesians are loving this."

Joko has broken with the cozy tradition of ignoring ethical concerns in appointing cabinet ministers by submitting the names to the KPK and another body, the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center.

He has caused irritation inside his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, headed by onetime president Megawati Sukarnoputri, by refusing to horse-trade for cabinet seats or top administrative positions, saying he would put together a cabinet leaning heavily towards technocrats.

Joko has said he would appoint some political party representatives to the cabinet but even those people are being vetted. Some of those rejected are almost certainly from the PDI-P. Political party leaders inside government have frequently been ensnared by scandals in recent years.

A scheduled cabinet announcement on Wednesday was scrapped at the last minute with no explanation.

Joko summoned potential candidates to the palace on Monday and Tuesday, including several who had not been thought of before including Komaruddin Hidayat, the rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, and Mirza Adityaswara, the senior deputy governor of Bank Indonesia.

Assuming that his presidential transition team had already made an informal survey of who is and isn’t corrupt before submitting the list to the KPK, the level of overall crookedry in Indonesian politics is very high. Transparency International, the NGO that ranks countries by corruption perceptions, puts the country at 114th of 177 across the world, in the 23rd percentile.

The fact that Jokowi, as the president-elect is known, asked the KPK to vet candidates elicited criticism from Fadli Zon, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, who said he could ask for the KPK’s recommendation, “but don’t let the KPK decide whether one could be a minister. … Who actually appoints the ministers, the KPK or the president?”

Indonesia is in the throes of an extraordinary experiment at the hands of the new president, who rose from obscurity to become Jakarta governor and then defeat Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of the late strongman Suharto, who spent an estimated US$400 million in a vain 10-year campaign to win the job. He won as a result of the phenomenal popularity he accrued as governor from October 2012 to the 2014 presidential campaign, in stark contrast to the do-nothing city administrations that had preceded him.

Jakarta, an amalgam of five cities that some consider to be the second biggest city in the world after greater Tokyo when its suburbs are included, was regarded as virtually ungovernable. But in a whirlwind of activity, Jokowi and his deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, cracked down on visible corruption, forsaking motorcades to visit poor areas on foot. He instituted civil service testing for government employees and saw to it that they came to work on time.

He also introduced a universal health program as well as a "Smart Jakarta Card" for poor students for books and uniforms, inaugurated the construction of a light rail system that had been stalled for decades, more than doubled the provincial budget, brought in transparent online tax collection, e-budgeting, e-purchasing, and a cash management system. He regulated street vendors and renovated and built traditional markets. He initiated dredging of the city’s fetid rivers to reduce the level of flooding.

He is expected to bring many of these programs to the national level, already having promised a universal health scheme. He is expected to cut the fuel subsidy, which costs the country an estimated 17 percent of the fiscal budget.

But his biggest challenge is expected to be to drive many of his programs through the House of Representatives (DPR) in the face of a hostile reception. His immediate predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, won office in 2004 by promising reform, only to end up with an administration saddled with the arrests of some of his top lieutenants and with corporate interests such as the Bakrie empire pushing back against taxes and regulations. In the end it was business as usual.

How much of the hostility against Jokowi will be generated by Prabowo is unclear. After having attempted to virtually steal the presidency from him, Prabowo and his allies were read the riot act by Jokowi’s allies in the last week and were threatened privately with tax investigations if they didn’t get in line. Accordingly Prabowo appeared at Jokowi’s inauguration – the first publicly celebrated inauguration in Indonesia’s young democratic history – and pledged fealty to the new president.

The former general, whose political allies nominally control 60 percent of the legislature, met Tuesday with Joko's vice president, Jsusf Kalla. It appears that Prabowo's bid to use the House of Representative to derail Joko has missed the mark. Some of Prabowo's allies are said to be moving into the Joko camp.

Joko also faces cleaning up the notoriously corrupt national police, the attorney general’s office, the judiciary and the civil service. In one survey, fully half of civil servants acknowledged having taken bribes at some point. Indonesia Corruption Watch, a non-profit NGO, reported in 2012 that Indonesia had lost as much as Rp2.13 trillion (US$238.6 million) to corruption in 2011, most of it through embezzlement.

As the KPK investigation shows, his first task is rounding up enough honest men and women to run the government. His second is to combat vested interests who have spent decades creating a system based on everything from petty handouts to massive bribes for construction and infrastructure projects. Among those vested interests are some of the country’s major corporations, who have used the permissive atmosphere to win contracts and dodge taxes for decades.