Indonesia's Games Mess

With hardly three weeks to go before the Southeast Asian Games are to open in Indonesia, they are turning into the wrong kind of symbol for a country supposedly coming into its own as a regional powerhouse.

Instead of a source of national pride, the games have become a national embarrassment riddled with corruption, delays and mismanagement that has nearly wrecked President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party and brought down a host of other officials and politicians.

With nearly 16,000 athletes and official scheduled to arrive on Nov. 11 from across Southeast Asia, five venues remain to be completed and, officials say, may not be done by the time the games open. There are 666 different events in 56 sports scheduled for the 11-day games.

It now turns out that the Indonesian Navy may have to supply two ships to anchor offshore for housing because accommodations in the provincial capital of Palembang in Southern Sumatra are about 1,500 beds short. The athletes’ village, which has claimed the political careers of several of Yudhoyono’s party leaders on bribery charges, will only house 2,000 occupants. Another 8,000 are expected to stay in other quarters in Palembang, with yet another 4,500 filling all of the hotel rooms in the city.

Trillions of rupiah of taxpayer funds have been poured into building the games village and promoting the event. However, the venture began to go sour publicly last May when the Democratic Party’s treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, hurriedly decamped for Singapore “for medical reasons” a day before he was due to be banned from traveling for allegedly accepting US$3 million in bribes on tenders for the construction of the village facilities. Nazaruddin was widely believed to have been tipped off that he was about to be arrested so as to get him out of the country and avoid implicating others, possibly up to include the president’s son, Eddie Baskoro Yudhoyono, according to Twitter and Facebook messages that suggested his involvement.

A flock of officials, including Sports Ministry Secretary Wafid Muharam and others, have been arrested for taking bribes. An indictment prepared in July by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) named Mohamad El Idris, marketing manager for PT Duta Graha Indah, which had won the contract to build the village. Others included Democratic Party members Angelina Sondakh and Mirwan Amir, I Wayan Koster of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P); and South Sumatra Gov. Alex Noerdin.

While on the run, Nazaruddin repeatedly denied the corruption charges, remaining elusive and resisting blandishments by Yudhoyono and others seeking to lure him home to face up to the charges. He continued to issue a blizzard of statements from undisclosed locations via BlackBerry and Twitter on corruption scandals including allegations that the party chairman, Anas Urbangingrum – considered one of Yudhoyono’s reformers - was implicated in the athletes’ village bribery scandal and that the party chairman engaged in vote-buying.

Nazaruddin also brought the KPK itself, considered the country’s most incorruptible institution, under suspicion, saying that Urbaningrum had made a deal with Chandra M. Hamzah, the commission’s deputy chairman, to support his reelection to the KPK if Hamzah promised to protect party members – including Urbangingrum against questioning in the village case. KPK officials immediately said they would investigate Hamzah.

Nazaruddin was finally cornered in Venezuela and brought back by private jet to face questioning. He was said to be afraid to eat for fear he might be poisoned.

The scandal has spread beyond the Democratic Party, with members of the House of Representatives Budget Committee facing questioning as well, including Malchias Marcus Mekeng of Golkar, Olly Dondokambey of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and Tamsil Linrung of the Prosperous Justice Party. Mirwan, the budget committee deputy chairman, who was named by Nazaruddin as one of those who had allegedly assisted in rigging the bid for the contract for PT Duta Graha Indah for the village had already been named.

Private citizens have been caught up in the scandal as well, with stockbroker Mindo Rosalina Manulang being jailed for four years and businessman Muhammad El Idris for three and a half. The two were arrested in April after delivering Rp3.2 billion ($374,000) in checks to the ministry’s secretary, Wafid Muharram, who has been suspended.

Yudhoyono in July summoned 5,300 party members to a meeting in Jakarta to call for a cleanup of party ranks, saying that the party’s reputation, image and dignity had to come before anything else and called for party leaders to stop attacking each other. He pledged to lead a drive to get rid of members suspected of legal or ethical problems.

But given Indonesia’s culture of impunity, that is a big task, and one that an increasingly fed-up electorate doesn’t believe will be completed. As an indication of Yudhoyono’s failure to convince the electorate of his commitment, according to a poll by the Indonesia Survey Circle, only 12 percent of voters believe the current crop of politicians are doing a better job than those who were running the country under the former strongman Suharto, who was driven from office in 1998 after three decades in power.

The poll, completed in September among 1,200 respondents in all 33 Indonesian provinces on how they regard their politicians, found that a majority -- 51 percent -- believe politicians are doing a poor or very poor job, with 25 percent not bothering to even comment.

Yudhoyono responded this week with a cabinet shakeup that analysts described as an attempt to improve his government’s waning popularity. He appointed the country’s popular investment chief Gita Wirjawan as the new trade minister, replacing E Mari Pangestu, The 46-year-old Wirjawan, an investment banker before he joined the government, is regarded as a hot political prospect. He founded Ancora Capital and was previously vice chairman and head of the Indonesia arm of the JP Morgan investment bank.

Yudhoyono also picked Dahlan Iskan, the chief executive officer of the state utility firm PLN to head the State-Owned Enterprise Ministry, replacing Mustafa Aubaka, who suffered a heart attack in August. Both Wirjawan and Iskan are regarded as reform-minded professionals.

Manpower Minister Muhamin is also expected to be switched or removed after thousands of dollars were recently found stuffed in a fruit box in his office, thought to be kickbacks from a migrant worker settlement project.