Indonesia’s President Under Unaccustomed Fire

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, shaken by continuing demonstrations against a proposed law to emasculate the country’s deeply respected Corruption Eradication Commission, is caught in a crisis, considering cancelling the legislation while his patrons, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, (PDI-P) demand that he stay the course, arguing that the agency has too much power and authority.

There has been no official statement from Megawati Sukarnoputri, the head of the PDI-P, but there have been signals that she and the party object to a plan by the president to issue a decree in lieu of the law, known as a perpu, which would delay implementation for a year. Bambang Wuyanto, the chairman of the party’s election committee, said Jokowi, as the president is known, would disrespect the House of Representatives, if he did so.

"Not by perpu (to cancel the new law), Bambang said. “If it is issued, sorry to say that the president does not respect” the legislature. At the same time, the president’s chief of staff, Moedelko, has been quoted saying the agency stifles investment. The KPK, as the agency is known, fired back that it is corruption that stifles investment.

The president and the party – and the House of Representatives, which pushed the bill through – have faced fierce demonstrations that broke out last weekend and have continued through the week in nine cities, with thousands including high school students and reformers demanding that the president nullify the law, which was rushed through parliament and approved on September 17 without consultation with reform organizations.

"I received many suggestions from prominent figures about the importance of a decree in lieu of the law. We will calculate and consider [the idea], especially from a political perspective," the president was quoted in local media as saying shortly after the meeting. Once he decided to issue the decree, he said, it would be prepared "as soon as possible.”

In recent days, Jokowi has faced a multitude of problems including illegal fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra to clear land for oil palm plantations, demonstrations over a pending deeply unpopular measure that would criminalize extra-marital sex, an earthquake on the island of Maluku that killed 20, and an independence movement in resource-rich Papua.

The legislature has since postponed the ratification of the new draft criminal law, including those governing extramarital sex, that was proposed by Jokowi’s own vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, a 76-year-old cleric who heads the Indonesian Ulama Council, or MUI, the country’s biggest Muslim organization. The law would prescribe jail terms and fines for premarital sex, which has freaked out tourists on the resort island of Bali, as well as for adultery and homosexual sex. It would also enlarge the definition of blasphemy.

All of these incidents have tarnished the president’s aura of competence and honesty and threatened his ability to govern. Dozens of prominent political figures and reform advocates met with him at the presidential palace on Sept. 27, urging him to issue the perpu, delaying the law that limits the powers of the anti-corruption commission, known by its Indonesian initials KPK.

The organization has been under fire from special interests virtually since it came into existence 17 years ago. On at least two other occasions, laws have been proposed to hamstring the KPK but have been thwarted when masses of demonstrators took to the streets in protest.

Jokowi shocked his supporters earlier this month when he issued a presidential letter approving the deliberations on the legislation, which the public had expected him to stop in its tracks. Three of the five KPK directors resigned their positions in protest and staff have streamed out of the KPK.

Long the country’s most respected public institution, the KPK has brought cases that jailed scores of lawmakers including top members of the then-ruling Democratic Party as well as former House Speaker Setya Novanto. The organization has maintained its 100 percent conviction rate, built on its ability to wiretap suspects without their knowledge and sift through their bank accounts.

Under the legislation, which is due to come into effect soon, the KPK must shut down investigations if they can’t be completed within two years, weakening their efforts to handle complex corruption cases.

KPK employees would also be forced to become civil servants instead of enjoying their current status as independent operatives. Originally an ad-hoc independent institution, it would become part of the executive branch under a supervisory board consisting of five people tasked with overseeing its duties and authority to grant licenses for wiretapping and searches, and establishing a code of ethics.

Most disturbing, the legislature also recently appointed five KPK commissioners for the 2019-2023 period amid criticism from anti-corruption activists and legal experts. The agency would be headed by a police officer, Insp. Gen. Firli Bahuri, who in the past was accused of “gross ethical violations” during his time as a KPK law enforcement deputy in 2018.

Firli was an assistant to the personal secretary of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2010 and an aide to Vice President Boediono in 2012. Boediono has been questioned by the KPK as a witness in the Bank Century bailout case in which trillions of rupiah were stolen and whisked overseas. The KPK is currently investigating the case even though there have been no significant developments. Under the new rules, the Bank Century case would be dropped because of the two-year limit. Other cases, including one against officials of Garuda Indonesia Airlines, are also endangered along with a seven-year investigation on the electronic identity card (E-KTP) in which lawmakers have been accused of taking massive bribes.

The constitutional law expert Refly Harun said that the appointment of Firli, who came from a police institution, was contrary to the initial enthusiasm for the formation of the KPK.

“This is an extraordinary paradox. The police as an institution authorized to eradicate corruption has not worked effectively and efficiently so that the KPK was formed. But now the KPK leader is from the police,” said Refly.

Other legal institutions such as the police and prosecutors are considered too corrupt and unable to eradicate corruption. In order for its functions to be maximized, the KPK has been equipped with several authorities including the right to tap without permission from other government agencies. There is no system to abort cases, no supervisory agency limits the KPK’s scope of work. These authorities are now limited.

Former Chairman of the Constitutional Court Mahfud MD advised the public not to underestimate the new KPK commissioners, and instead to support them to carry out their duties.