Indonesia’s Police Battle Corruption Busters

President Joko Widodo’s muted reaction to a growing assault on Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) led by the National Police and supported by the president’s own political party, has raised public criticism of the new administration and fueled concerns about the fate of the respected commission.

Joko was elected last July largely on his credentials as a reform-minded local politician and man of the people with no tolerance for corruption. But he has been curiously quiet over the police assault on the KPK, arguably Indonesia’s most trusted national institution, in apparent retaliation for the filing of charges against a police general who was named to be national police chief and was then quickly listed as a corruption suspect by the KPK.

With the police leveling what appear to be revenge charges against KPK commissioners, the president has faced mounting public criticism. He called an emergency meeting over the weekend to discuss the issue, the most serious crisis of his young presidency, but did not invite the KPK to send a representative.

During a TV interview Sunday, Jokowi, as the president is universally known, said he could not intervene in the legal process. He offered no comfort to the KPK in its battle for survival with the police, saying he was giving both institutions the chance “to do the right thing and avoid acting above the law.”

“If I intervene the people will also protest. The KPK and [National Police] should both be saved,” he said.

The mess has engulfed the new administration, which took office in October, in a massive controversy, with critics – and erstwhile Jokowi supporters – saying the president is playing a dangerous political game that could derail anti-corruption efforts.

Meanwhile, the president’s chief minister for security affairs, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, openly belittled a call by Commission chairman Abraham Samad for the public to rally to the KPK cause. “Do not provoke the masses by telling them ‘Let’s do this!’ or ‘Let’s do that!’” the minister said on Saturday, prior to a meeting with Jokowi. “That statement is childish.”

He added that the KPK should not be “getting support from those unimportant people,” a statement that outraged prominent civil society activists and led to calls for Tedjo to be prosecuted.

Reawakened struggle

The battle began in mid-January when Jokowi took the surprise move of naming three-star police general Budi Gunawan to be the nation’s new police chief, despite the post not being vacant. The day after the nomination, the KPK named Budi a suspect in a graft investigation over long-standing charges that he had millions of dollars stashed away in suspect bank accounts.

The move pitted the Commission against former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the powerful leader of Jokowi’s political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Budi was once Megawati’s adjutant and the two are said to have a close personal friendship. The naming of Budi also highlighted widespread worries that Jokowi is unduly influenced by Megawati. His cabinet has been criticized for being too much in thrall to the PDI-P and members of the party have spoken out publicly in recent days criticizing the KPK

Despite being approved quickly for the post by the House of Representatives, Budi’s rise was put on hold by Jokowi, who named an interim chief. Budi cried foul and accused the KPK of abuse of power in naming him a suspect.

This apparently set off a chain reaction of events that reignited a long-simmering battle between the National Police, which most opinion polls routinely find to be Indonesia’s most corrupt public institution, and the KPK, usually cited as one of the few honest government institutions.

Arrests and cold cases

On Friday last week, Deputy KPK Commissioner Bambang Widjojanto was arrested on the street by police on perjury charges brought by a PD-P politician from 2010 related to a case that had already been dismissed by a higher court. He was quickly released but has filed for a leave of absence due to the charges.

A day later, another KPK deputy, Adnan Pandu Praja, was reported to police and threatened with arrest over a complaint brought by the lawyer for a small company he once represented as an attorney. The lawyer claimed Adnan misappropriated shares from the company in 2006.

On Sunday, Adnan called the police action an attempt to undermine the KPK. “Now it’s my turn to be reported to the police,” Adnan told a crowd of protesters gathered in support of the KPK. The harassment, he said, is “the cost of fighting corruption in Indonesia.”

On Monday, a third KPK commissioner was threatened with a possible criminal investigation, according to press reports, when a supposed NGO calling itself the East Java People’s Alliance said that it would report Zulkarnain, a deputy chairman of the Commission, for allegedly taking a bribe in a 2008 case.

At the time, Zulkarnain was not charged but his accuser on Monday, Fathur Rosyid, served six years in jail over the case, which centered on the embezzlement of social aid funds from a provincial budget.

What the hell is going on?

The Jakarta rumor mill has been churning overtime to explain the dizzying series of events. One scenario sees the Budi nomination as a clever trap being laid by Jokowi for Megawati to stub her toe over an embarrassing nomination. Others believe Jokowi himself may be impatient with his one-time allies in the KPK and that he would like to see the body sidelined to avoid the kind of scrutiny that badly tarnished the last years in office of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Another line of reasoning has it that Megawati, other members of the traditional political elite and perhaps even Vice President Jusuf Kalla are conspiring to damage the president as a way to maintain the status quo in the face of a determined reformer.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the tumult, it is a sobering echo of a bitter battle in 2009 over the arrest of an allegedly corrupt police general whom the KPK attempted in vain to prosecute. In that battle, two KPK commissioners were arrested by police on “abuse of power” charges that were later dismissed. The whole affair gave rise to the analogy that a “gecko” (the KPK) cannot win a battle with a “crocodile.” That image has been resurrected in the past couple of weeks, with the outcome very much in doubt.

In 2009, Yudhoyono refused to take a strong stand on behalf of the KPK, damaging his credibility for the rest of his presidency. Many Jokowi supporters fear their man may be doing the same thing.