Indonesia's SBY in Trouble

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is said by political analysts in Jakarta to be a major crisis, with his governing Democrat Party’s fugitive former treasurer leveling charges of widespread corruption against top party members.

Political analysts say the scandal could affect the party’s chances in 2014 legislative races, with Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the next two biggest political parties looking forward to making inroads. Aburizal Bakrie, the billionaire tycoon who heads Golkar, has ambitions to replace Yudhoyono as president in the next election as well. The Democrats, who lead a ruling coalition of 314 seats in the 560-seat legislature, hold 150 seats against Golkar’s 125 and the PDI-P, as it is known under its Indonesian initials, with 95.

The errant treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin skipped out for Singapore in May, 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 athletes’ village facilities for the Southeast Asian Games, to be hosted by Indonesia in Palembang in November. His sudden departure raised questions whether he was being helped out of the country by people who didn’t want him singing too loudly. At the time he told reporters later that he was merely going to Singapore for medical treatment and would return.

He didn’t. He has repeatedly denied the corruption charges and has resisted blandishments by Yudhoyono and others seeking to lure him home to face up to the charges. He has been fired by his party and faces questioning by the Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian initials KPK.

Despite efforts by party officials to shut him up, Nazaruddin has been issuing a blizzard of statements from an undisclosed location via BlackBerry and Twitter on corruption scandals including allegations that the party chairman, Anas Urbangingrum, was implicated in the athletes’ village bribery scandal and that the party chairman engaged in vote-buying.

Singaporean immigration officials say Nazaruddin is no longer in the island republic. And while the national police have located several “hideouts” where they said he might be, so far they haven’t found him.

The fugitive’s cousin, Muhammad Nasir, who replaced him as a lawmaker, has urged Nazaruddin to return to the country and stop embarrassing the party, saying he wasn’t being professional. Nasir, however, faces investigation on some of the same charges that Nazaruddin is implicated in.

Nazaruddin appeared on television last week to level charges against Urbaningrum and brought the KPK, considered the country’s most incorruptible institution, itself 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 athletes’ village construction case.

The KPK immediately announced it would investigate Hamzah. “Regarding the information given by Nazaruddin, the KPK will form a team to investigate it because it is important to verify any information about the KPK's officials, no matter how small the information is,” a KPK official said.

Yudhoyono, who was elected as a reformist president and reelected resoundingly in 2009 on a reform platform, has been struggling with a long series of corruption problems that have tarnished his image despite his continued frustrated demands that they be cleaned up.

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

Given Indonesia’s culture of impunity, that is a big task. Nonetheless, partly leaders said they would ferret out those with legal problems and refer them to an ethics tribunal. The question is whether they can follow through. The Democrats face a very delicate situation. Expulsion of errant members could lead to serious fissures in the party. Thus, while Yudhoyono may have made it clear that he wants to shake up the party, the question is whether the party leadership can follow through. It clearly hasn’t in the past.

For instance, Nazaruddin’s charges against Urbangingrum would, if proven, bring down the head of the party. While keeping him on as chairman would contribute to the party’s image as less than savory, replacing him could create considerable instability. Yudhoyono himself in the past has shied away from drastic action like firing top officials, contributing to his image as a waffling president.

Yudhoyono is thus likely to avoid drastic changes. As for Nazaruddin’s charges, whistle-blowers in the past have mostly been ignored – most recently the tax collector Gayus Tambunan, who was arrested for taking millions of dollars in bribes to soften the tax blow for major corporations, and who named some of those who gave him bribes. Also, one of the country’s top police officials, Susno Duadji, who was ousted from the police force on bribery charges, accused three of his fellow top police officials as well as officials in the Attorney General’s Office and others of taking bribes as well to bury a criminal probe. So far nothing has happened.