‘Little Kings’ Thwart Indonesia's Democracy
Regional autonomy sounded like good idea at the time
By: Ainur Rohmah
In January, Indonesian graftbusters swooped down on the luxurious home of Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin, the regional head of the Langkat Regency in North Sumatra 2,000 km northeast of Jakarta, to discover iron-barred cages (above) in which 48 people were being held including alleged drug addicts, teenage delinquents and people working on Terbit’s oil palm plantations without being paid.
His arrest, during which two graves were uncovered of people who allegedly died after being tortured, illustrates just how badly wrong Indonesia’s two-decade-old decision has gone to devolve power to manage large finances and resources to regional heads with minimal supervision. Data from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) show that at least 429 regional heads have been involved in corruption cases since direct general elections began in 2005.
Indonesia began implementing decentralization or regional autonomy in 1999, after the fall of the centralized government led by the dictator Suharto. However, the local governments, which consist of 34 provinces and 514 districts and cities – respectively led by the governor and mayor – have only been officially able to manage their own finances since January 2001, which in 2021 amounted to a lavish Rp780.48 trillion (US$54.42 billion) in direct transfers of funds and village funds (TKDD). As a consequence, the central government delegates various responsibilities and authorities to local governments, except in the fields of foreign policy, defense, security, judiciary, monetary and fiscal, and religion.
Terbit, the Langkat regent, is one of three who were arrested in January. He is regarded as one of the richest, with a reported wealth of at least Rp85 billion (US$5.92 million). In his closed housing complex, Terbit is believed to have operated the cages for at least 10 years without a permit and without meeting the criteria for a drug addict's rehabilitation facility. It was reported that the local community and the police were aware of the existence of the cages, but no one protested.
The three most recently arrested are the mayor of Bekasi, West Java Province, Rahmat Effendi, who was caught in alleged bribery in the procurement of goods, services and auction positions; Regent of Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan Province, Abdul Gafur Mas'ud who is suspected of accepting bribes in the procurement of goods, services and permits; and Terbit. He allegedly demanded kickbacks from private contractors in exchange for infrastructure construction projects in the regency. He is accused of having collaborated with his brother, Iskandar Perangin-Angin, who was a village head.
Anticorruption activist Donal Fariz from Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) said that in areas rich in natural resources, corruption occurs in mining licensing and land conversion. Meanwhile, in regions that are not rich in natural resources, corruption is mostly related to regional spending for the procurement of goods and services.
The corrupt usually play the budget in some of the sectors with the highest budgets such as education, health, and infrastructure. In fact, these sectors are also very influential on the welfare of society.
Little Kings in the Region
Based on government regulations, the total base salary and allowances for regents is not up to Rp6 million per month and operational allowances between Rp125-600 million depending on regional income. But the 34-year-old North Penajam Paser Regent Abdul Gafur Mas'ud is known to often flaunt his luxurious lifestyle on his personal Instagram, such as when riding in a private jet with his family, or wearing branded clothes and accessories. When he was arrested by the KPK last month, he and several of his colleagues were shopping at a mall in Jakarta. Some shopping bags containing branded items such as a Dior hat and a Zara shirt as well as Rp1 billion in corruption proceeds.
Abdul Gafur, who has been regent since 2018, spent Rp34 billion on his official residence despite the impact of the pandemic, a policy that has been widely criticized, telling others the house could raise the "dignity" of North Penajam Paser, which part of which is to be occupied as the capital of the new nation.
Widespread Corruption, Collusion, and Nepotism
Some often take advantage of democracy and direct elections to devolve their families into political dynasties, placing them in the legislature and executive run by political parties, which often recruit people outside the party cadres but with large capital, and are without sufficient government managerial skills.
Abdul Gafur, for example, is associated with political dynasties in East Kalimantan. His older brother Rahmad Mas'ud is the mayor of Balikpapan, while three other brothers are members of the legislature at both the central and local levels. According to research by Yoes C. Kenawas, 108 of the 548 administrative regions in Indonesia in 2020 are led by regional heads and deputy regional heads associated with political dynasties.
Although critics describe the practice as dangerous for democracy, the number of regional heads in Indonesia who come from political dynasties continues to increase, especially after a Constitutional Court Decision in 2015 which confirmed that the practice of political dynasties was constitutional. Kenawas data show 202 candidates were related to political dynasties in the 2015, 2017, and 2018 regional elections, of which 117 won. The situation was worse in the 2020 regional election, where according to research by the Nagari Institute, as many as 124 figures related to political dynasties ran for election, 57 of whom won.
Law enforcement, including the KPK, can’t do much to prevent the dynasties. Deputy Chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Alexander Marwata said the Constitutional Court's decision was clear that the right to be elected is the right of every citizen. The KPK could only urge candidates for regional heads and state administrators to maintain integrity. The KPK also appealed to the public not to exchange their votes for money. Given the trend, that seems futile in the regencies.