Indonesia’s Ceaseless Corruption Campaign

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sat at the head of the table staring down the two ministers implicated in a multi-million dollar bribery scandal. It was a well choreographed scene.

SBY, as the president is universally known, recently launched his campaign for a second term promising to stamp out corruption and intended to show that he was in charge and that no one was untouchable. But after the photographers and camera crews left the room on Monday, National Planning Minister Paskah Suzetta and Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Ka’ban were sent on their way with nothing more than a warning, their ministerial positions intact. SBY’s need for two hugely important party wheelhorses to pull his 2009 electoral campaign trumped his need to trample out the vintage where the grapes of graft are stored. That leaves Indonesia’s long-suffering public wondering whether SBY’s “anti-corruption drive” is anything more than a political slogan.

Ever since the fall of President Suharto, who along with his family is estimated to have stolen anywhere from US$15 billion to $35 billion – but who’s counting -- from the country, the anti-corruption message has been a powerful political tool. It is largely the reason why SBY rode to the presidency in 2004 and more recently has been behind the success of the Prosperous Justice Party in local elections. SBY’s flagging commitment is a major reason for his falling popularity figures today.

Nonetheless, there has been significant progress. Public disaffection with corruption as usual has resulted in a big increase in the number of high-profile prosecutions including former ministers, senior state officials, parliamentarians and even a central bank governor – except, of course, for Paskah and Ka’ban, who have more important duties right now than spending time in the pokey.

The Corruption Eradication Commission, known by the initials KPK, was set up in 2003 in the dying days of the Megawati Sukarnoputri Presidency and has surprised many with its pursuit of high-profile offenders. Its first target, former Acehnese governor Abdullah Puteh, was sentenced to 10 years jail in 2005 for “enriching himself” with some of the proceeds from the purchase of a Russian helicopter. This year alone, the KPK has arrested five members of parliament, a former national police chief and ambassador to Malaysia, a senior prosecutor and three central bank officials including the governor. Scarcely a day goes by without a story in local newspapers as politicians willingly sing for their supper about past transgressions.

But the KPK is only part of the story. According to Indonesian Corruption Watch, the KPK completed 59 cases up to June 2007 and while all defendants were found guilty and sent to prison, that represented just 2 per cent of all corruption cases across the country. In the normal court system, more than half of all defendants in corruption cases were set free. And while SBY has been outwardly supportive of the KPK’s role, the commission doesn’t answer to him.

“If we scrutinize the progress that has been made, the biggest contributor has been the KPK and that is an independent institution that is not responsible to the government or parliament,” says Corruption Watch’s Danang Wijoyoko. “The president has tried to capitalize on the KPK success but that doesn’t mean he is responsible for it.”

The Attorney General’s Office, on the other hand, which does come directly under control of the President, has been plagued by a spectacular scandal. Three senior AG’s office officials were recently sacked following the revelation of their links to Artalyta, a businesswoman who last month was jailed for five years for bribing a state prosecutor.

Taped phone conversations between those officials and Artalyta, who lobbied the office successfully to drop an investigation into business tycoon Sjamsul Nursalim, were hugely embarrassing for the government and the AG’s office. They were repeatedly played in court and converted into mobile phone ring tones for anti-corruption activists. The trial of prosecutor Urip Tri Gunawan, who was arrested at Artalyta’s house with US$660,000 in cash, is ongoing. He claims the money was a loan to start a business.

“In terms of combating corruption, SBY’s direct control is over the Attorney General’s Office and look at the corruption that exists around that office,” says Wijoyoko.

There is also the question of ever having to say more than sorry. According to Corruption Watch’s report card for the first half of 2008, of 94 non-KPK corruption cases involving 196 defendants and Rp1.2 trillion (US$131 million), more than half of the defendants were freed. Of the 92 found guilty, 76 received sentences of less than two years jail.

The results are “not good enough” according to Wijoyoko. But that may change in the lead up to the election as SBY has highlighted corruption as a campaign issue. In recent polls, the president has fallen behind his predecessor Megawati in the popularity stakes and is keen to rebuild his clean image.

“The popularity of SBY has declined significantly and I think he needs to show strong leadership on this issue,” says Anung Karyadi, policy and research manager at Transparency International Indonesia. “The anti-corruption court has made great progress. The Attorney General’s Office on the other hand, hasn’t.”

While politics may be behind SBY’s renewed focus on corruption, it is also the reason his hands were tied this week with regard to his two cabinet ministers, implicated in the central bank bribery scandal. Paskah Suzetta is also a senior member of Golkar, Indonesia’s biggest political party and that of Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Malam Sambat Ka’ban is chairman of the Crescent Star Party, which supported SBY’s run for president in 2004.

Some political analysts say he was reluctant to risk offending any political parties nine months out from the next election. However, if the two ministers are named as actual suspects “the president will have no options but to suspend them,” says Wijoyoko. “A suspension would make the law enforcement process much easier. The ministers could not delay the process by refusing to be questioned by the KPK because they have an important meeting or a meeting with the President.

“We also demand that the KPK speed up their investigation and prosecute these ministers.”

Golkar politician Hamka Yandhu said in court late last month that Paskah and Ka’ban both accepted money as part of a bribery case in 2003 involving Rp100 billion of central bank funds, which was allegedly used to bribe parliamentarians.

Five people have already been charged in relation to the case, including former Bank Indonesia governor Burhanuddin Abdullah and two of his deputies. Yandhu and another parliamentarian are also being detained. He claims he “personally handed over the money” to Paskah. Both Paskah and Ka’ban have denied the accusations.

On top of the accusations about his role in the Bank Indonesia bribery scandal, Ka’ban is also in hot water over a letter he sent to Sumatran police in 2006 defending fugitive businessman Adelin Lis, who was convicted in absentia of illegal logging and sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Supreme Court last month.

SBY, for his part, is hiding behind the legal process. He says he will wait and see what happens. But he has acted to remove politicians in the past without waiting for the legal process to play out. In May last year he replaced then Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin and state secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra amid controversy over their efforts to help a Bahama-based company, partly owned by Tommy Suharto, to reclaim money from BNP Paribas. Apparently, this time was different.