Indonesia's Graft Watchdogs go for Bigger Targets

Indonesia’s most potent law enforcement agency, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), appears to have taken its war on graft to a new level, going after individuals close to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself, as well as the National Police, considered to be one of the country’s most corrupt institutions.

The attempt to go after police officials resulted in a widely publicized standoff two weeks ago when the KPK’s investigators sought to confiscate documents from an East Jakarta traffic control office that allegedly implicated a top official in bribery charges, but were thwarted by police officials. The police refused to give the KPK access for 20 hours, only giving in when corruption agency officials agreed to allow police access to key pieces of evidence. The standoff made the pages of the country’s major newspapers.

The KPK was created in 2002 during the administration of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri with a mandate to clear away the graft that permeated all levels of Indonesian public agencies during the 34-year reign of the late strongman Suharto, who was ousted in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998. As much as anything, the KPK was responsible for SBY’s overblown reputation as a reformer during his first term, when he came into office in 2004.

There is a growing sense in Indonesia that the citizenry of the 240-million population country, particularly the growing middle class, is becoming increasingly fed up with endemic corruption, and that the KPK is able to play off that perception.

The agency in the past has been accused of setting its sights on lower-level offenders and leaving some of the country’s most powerful figures alone. That appears no longer to be the case with the recent naming of prominent businesswoman Siti Hartati Murdaya, the wife of tycoon Murdaya Poo, as a suspect in bribing a local official to obtain land concessions for her palm oil company in Central Sulawesi. Hartati, an early and enthusiastic backer of the Democratic Party, which Yudhoyono heads, was a member of the party’s advisory board as well as a member of the influential National Economic Committee.

Hartati has denied the charges. Nonetheless, front-page pictures of the well-coiffed socialite being driven off in a police van have told a grim story for the president. A close friend of Hartati’s, another socialite, palm oil plantation owner Artalyta Suryani, who previously served jail time for bribing a prosecutor, remains in Singapore where she fled on leave because of a supposed neurological disorder. Nonetheless, KPK investigators flew to Singapore to question her at the Indonesian embassy, where they said her testimony was “instrumental” to their case.

Other top Democratic Party officials have been hauled before the courts in a big scandal involving widespread bribery over the construction of an athlete’s village for the Southeast Asian Games last year.

For instance, another glamorous figure to be brought to court is Democratic Party lawmaker and television personality Angelina “Angie” Sondakh, who is accused of receiving bribe money linked to a major bid-rigging scandal. Johan Budi, a spokesman for the KPK, said the investigation against Sondakh has been completed, meaning she would soon face trial.

It is the police agency, however, that has made the bigger front-page news. In particular, the corruption watchdog has set its sights on Inspector General Djoko Susilo, the head of the National Police’s traffic division when it lost at least Rp100 billion ($10.5 million) on the purchase of driving simulators.

Djoko is suspected of having received Rp2 billion in bribes in exchange for naming two companies the winners of a Rp197 billion contract to provide the simulators. The legal row between the police and the KPK has divided the political elite and legal experts. Over the past week, newspapers and websites have featured appeals for the police to stop investigating the case and to allow the KPK to continue its job unimpeded.

Tempo Magazine then recently reported that the National Police had been wiretapping Abraham Samad, the KPK chairman, and his chief deputy, Bambang Widjojanto, in an effort to keep track of their movements on the simulator scandal.

It isn’t the first the KPK has crossed swords with the police. In 2009, the agency went after chief detective Susno Duadji, who compared the KPK to a gecko fighting a crocodile. The police and attorney general attempted to frame two KPK deputy chairmen, Chandra Hamzah and Bibit Samad Rianto, on charges of extortion, bribery and abuse of power. The two denied the charges. They were supported by demonstrators in several Indonesian cities. A Facebook campaign drew more than a million members.

Yudhoyono established a team to look into the allegations. Eventually, bugged telephone phone conversations revealed a conspiracy by Susno, Deputy Attorney General Abdul Hakim Ritonga and a businessman, Anggodo Widjojo, to frame the two, resulting in the freeing of Bibit and Chandra on the same day.

The new battle between the two impelled Yudhoyono, in his Aug. 16 state-of-the-nation address on the eve of the anniversary of Indonesia’s declaration of independence 67 years ago, to once again list the battle of corruption as topping the list of the country’s six main public concerns and urging harmony between law enforcement agencies. Yudhoyono has repeatedly called for an end to graft in the country each time another top official falls to the prosecutors.

In his Independence Day speech, Yudhoyono called for “togetherness amongst law enforcers, not unhealthy competition or attempts to weaken each other,” an oblique reference to the increasingly apparent rivalry between the two agencies. He called on all citizens to work to improve the country’s investment climate and legal certainty, which many have blamed as causing Indonesia’s high cost economy and hindering economic growth.

The impasse between the police and the KPK reinforces the sense that Yudhoyono’s administration has made little headway in terms of combating corruption, Jakarta Globe columnist Karim Raslan wrote last week. “The fact that he needed to order the feuding law enforcement agencies to get along, but failed to address the issues between them is yet another example of his indecisiveness as well as how the mantle of authority has slipped from his grasp.”