Powerful Indonesian Insider Faces Corruption Charges

Indonesia’s House Speaker, Setya Novanto, one of the country’s most powerful politicians and a man who narrowly dodged a bullet over allegations of seeking to suborn a bribe from Freeport McMoran, the US-based mining giant in 2015, may not be so lucky this time.

On July 17, the country’s fearsome anti-graft agency Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) named Setya, the chairman of Golkar, the country’s oldest political party, a suspect in a scandal over the procurement of a new national electronic identity card, from which officials embezzled Rp2.3 trillion (US$180.05 million). It has been called the biggest scandal ever to engulf the House of Representatives.

It is hardly the first to wash over Setya. There have been several, although none of them stopped him from attending the inauguration of US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, to be called a “great man” by the incoming chief executive. In November of 2015, Sudirman Said, then the energy and resources minister, displayed a recording of Setya invoking the names of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, and Vice President Jusuf Kalla without their knowledge to demand 20 percent of Freeport shares expected to go on the market as the company begins a forced divestment. Although the case was referred to the House Ethics Committee, Setya managed to brush the charges aside and eventually Sudirman lost his job.

Although the KPK’s powers have been diminished by political machinations, it remains a formidable law enforcement agency. KPK officials reportedly have told President Joko Widodo that Setya is going to go down, a problem for Jokowi because of the need for Golkar’s support in his upcoming reelection effort.

A week after naming Setya a suspect, on July 24 the KPK slapped his nephew Irvanto Hendra Pambudi with a six-month travel ban. Pambudi, who has been questioned as a witness, is the director of a company which formed the consortium bidding for the smart identity card project in 2011.

But whether this undermines Setya’s position, or he once again is able to maneuver himself out of a string of scandals, remains to be seen. Legally, he can hang onto his position as house speaker, taking advantage of the presumption of innocence ascribed in the Legislative Institutions Law for legislators and parliamentarians who become entangled in criminal investigations.

According to the law, “there is no reason to oust him or for him to resign from his position as Speaker of the House, unless he’s been convicted,” said Emrus Sihombing, a political analyst at the Pelita Harapan University postgraduate program.

“He still has the right to apply for a pre-trial hearing to challenge KPK’s move to name him a suspect. The decision [to resign] is up to his own individual consideration.”

Setya enjoys the support of his party’s central leadership body, which convened in a plenary meeting after he was named a suspect, and agreed that they would keep him in his position.

As head of Golkar, Setya is considered to be a key to Jokowi’s 2019 reelection campaign. Jokowi has already lost a key ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, who was defeated as governor of Jakarta and was jailed on blasphemy charges that many feel were politically motivated. Jokowi is likely to face Prabowo Subianto, the head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, whom he defeated in the 2014 race. Setya was also known as Ahok’s supporter during the gubernatorial election, having contributed Rp100 million to the former governor’s campaign team in August last year and was reported to have said “if it’s not enough, just ask again.”

Not all factions within Golkar are eager to support a graft case suspect as their party leader. Golkar’s Youth Wing Movement (GMPG) coordinator Ahmad Doli Kurnia said the central leadership body’s decision for taking the stance was “nonsensical and shameless.”

“They turn a blind eye and are deaf to the reality on the ground,” Ahmad told Asia Sentinel, adding that based on a recent internal survey, 67 percent of respondents surveyed said they are losing their trust in the party due over its chairman’s embroilment in the e-ID card graft case.

Ahmad said his allies have expressed their view Setya along with other lawmakers, ministers and a governor were mentioned in the trials of Sugiharto and Irman, two former high-ranking Home Affairs Ministry officials convicted of embezzling money for the e-ID card case.

“That was the start of negative public perception towards Golkar and we began to demand the party to start preparing to hold an extraordinary national congress to elect a new party chairman,” Ahmad said, adding that it became even more pertinent as Setya’s name was revealed during almost every court hearing.

According to the indictment, Setya allegedly received Rp574 billion from the state budget disbursed for the project. In a press conference after the KPK announced he was a suspect, he denied the allegations but said that as a law-abiding citizen, he would obey and follow the legal process.

Pelita Harapan’s Sihombing also said that politics is all about perception and projection of good or bad ethics and moral values to the constituents, instead of just arguing what is right or wrong according to the law.

What Golkar is experiencing with Setya would surely impact on public support towards the party, Sihombing said, and Golkar can learn from what other parties experienced, such as former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, which saw its popularity plummet after then-party chairman Anas Urbaningrum was accused of corruption in a sports complex development project and convicted in 2014 to serve eight years in prison.

Siti Zuhro, a political analyst with the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), said Golkar must have well calculated its move and weighed in all the risks to keep Setya as its party chairman.

“But the adverse impact is obvious, with the public questioning Golkar’s integrity as a party and its electability becomes uncertain, whether it will maintain its position as one of the leading parties in 2019 elections, since a party chairman serves also as a party symbol,” she said.

She added that being a named a suspect in a graft case means whoever is entangled in it would have to deal with it over a prolonged period.

“Waiting for Setnov to completely go through his case would only burden and hold Golkar hostage as an institution,” Zuhro said, referring Setya by his nickname.

Golkar Youth Wing’s Ahmad couldn’t agree more, saying that the personal matter of a certain party member should not jeopardize the party’s interests as a whole.

“We should believe in KPK that they must have been very thorough in their investigation before declaring someone a suspect,” he said.

Corruption watchdog Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) has also called on Setya to resign.

“This is about the ethics of a public official. Not to mention that it may implicate a family member. This is the common pattern of corruption, by involving cronies, family members or friends. This is what we always call ‘korupsi berjamaah’,” ICW activist Febri Hendri told Asia Sentinel, referring to the sardonic term of collectively and systematically embezzling money.

A recent survey that ICW conducted with pollster Polling Center in 177 towns and districts across Indonesia’s 34 provinces with 2,235 respondents in rural and urban areas showed that political parties scored the lowest with 35 percent, while the House of Representatives placed third from the bottom with 51 percent and the anti-graft body KPK scored the highest as the most trustworthy institution with 86 percent.

“The majority of respondents, or 87 percent, also said that they think corruption has worsened or hasn’t changed much in the past one year,” Febri said.

“The public remains skeptical about the trend of corruption in the country, but the KPK continues to get public trust and support,” he added.