Indonesia's Corruption Battle Gets Serious

In 2002, in the first flush of Indonesia's post-Suharto era, then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri pushed a law through the legislature establishing the Corruption Eradication Commission. The agency, a decade later, may actually be altering the political landscape of the country.

Certainly, cleaning up corruption completely in a country as lawless and sprawling as Indonesia may be impossible. Nonetheless, since it began operations in late 2003, the KPK, as it is known by its Indonesian initials, has become a fearsome force with a staff of 750 that has gone after people close enough to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to help cost him his cachet as a reformer and bring his political party to its knees.

It has recently counted coup with important scalps from three of the country's most prominent political parties including the president's own ruling Democrats, reducing the party's political footprint drastically and destroying its image as the party of political rectitude. It has taken on top members of the National Police, arrested the nation's chief oil and gas regulator and charged the head of the Constitutional Court with accepting bribes.

Already widely praised at home, the KPK was given a Ramon Magsaysay award for 2013, often described as Asia's Nobel Prize, for its "greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia."

"Given the steady drip-drip-drip of cases [brought by the KPK] I think these guys are on a campaign that is making them the most important political force in this country," said a veteran political observer in Jakarta. "It has basically destroyed Yudhoyono and his political party. You could argue that it is not just Jokowi's [Jakarta Gov. Joko Widowo's] popularity and clean image but public anger with the corruption exposed by the KPK that is redrawing the political map for 2014."

Jokowi's populist image and responsiveness to the vast city's nearly intractable problems has pushed him to the front of opinion polls, the most recent of which released this week gave Jokowi a 36 percent "electability" rating, outpointing the nearest challenger by nearly 30 points. If he runs next year, it will be with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, which hasn't yet been seriously enmeshed in the recent wave of scandals (although it has had its own share of cases in recent years).

The fading No. 2 in the polls, Prabowo Subianto, and his small Gerindra Party have also been free of KPK charges but Prabowo's past history as a tough-guy general and Suharto son-in-law creates its own problems for him. The Democrats are considered out of contention for 2014 due to the scandals.

The KPK was criticized during its early years for netting low-ranking politicians and others instead of going after the big fish. But in the past two years, it has shifted gears to bag some of the country's most prominent figures. The latest, arrested on Oct. 2, was Akil Mochtar, the chief justice of Indonesia's Constitutional Court, one of the country's two top judicial bodies.

In that case, KPK officials descended on Mochtar's residence in the middle of the night and confiscated a paper bag full of Singaporean and US currency equivalent to US$232,000. Mochtar was arrested on bribery allegations over his handling of local election disputes in districts in Kalimantan and Java. That was followed up with the related arrest of three members of the powerful Golkar party including Tubagus Chaeri Wardana and lawmaker Chairun Nisa. Tubagus is the brother of Ratu Atut Chosiyah, the Governor of Banten Province near Jakarta and an immensely powerful Golkar politician; Tubagus is married to Airin Rachmi Diany, the mayor of South Tangerang, a large Jakarta suburb. Ratu Atut faces questioning by the KPK and has been banned from leaving the country.

The arrests stunned a powerful Golkar local dynasty while putting party Chairman Aburizal Bakrie on the back foot in his already problematic campaign for the presidency.

Also this week, the KPK indicated it would soon formally arrest former Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng, a close Yudhoyono protégé, who has already been named a suspect in a massive construction kickback scandal involving the Democratic Party.

The legislation setting up the organization gave it draconian powers loosely modeled on Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption, with the power to authorize warrantless wiretaps, confiscate passports, subpoena financial information about suspects, freeze bank accounts and other financial transactions and detain suspects. Despite its limited annual budget of only US$57 million, its record has been spectacular, with a 100 percent conviction rate against 86 suspects in its own anti-corruption court.

This has been accomplished in the face of growing hostility on the part of the political and law enforcement community, which has made numerous attempts to cut the KPK's power, only to face public wrath and demonstrations in several cities. At one point a few years ago, the National Police hatched a plot to frame two KPK investigators on charges of bribery and extortion, only to have the case come apart when taped phone calls between officials proved it was a sham.

The KPK has also snared the top leaders of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the country's most influential Islamic party. Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, the former chairman, has been jailed. Hilmi Aminuddin, the party's chief patron, agriculture ministry officials and a variety of others have been tarnished in what has become known inevitably as Beefgate, a scandal centering on raising beef import quotas for favored companies. In Indonesia's politicized cabinet system, PKS, which is nominally allied with Yudhoyono, holds the lucrative agriculture portfolio.

The scandal was made even juicier because a top aide to Luthfi was arrested in a hotel room with cash and a naked co-ed who is rumored to be a favored companion of numerous party officials.

Also, in a case that began two years ago, the president's Democratic Party has been reduced to ashes by the KPK, with top officials including Anas Urbaningrum, the party chairman, and Mallarangeng both charged but not yet tried by the KPK. Mallarangeng was the first serving cabinet minister to be charged by the KPK. The scandal over a graft-ridden sports center construction project is estimated to have lost the government US$42 million and several other Democratic Party officials have been charged or already gone to prison over the affair.

In August, Rudi Rubiandini, the head of the country's oil and gas regulator was arrested on bribery allegations after anticorruption investigators raided his home and found more than $400,000 in cash. That case immediately took on political overtones with reports that Energy Minister Jero Wacik, a key strategist for the ruling Democratic Party, could be implicated and that the bribes were actually intended to finance the Democratic Party's ongoing nominating convention, which is intended to name a candidate to succeed Yudhoyono in 2014 presidential polls.

One senior source told Asia Sentinel in August that the spreading number of scandals touching figures close to the president is a sign of his weakening power and influence. "This is all about politics. SBY's enemies are coming after him," said the source.