Ruling Party Scandal Hits Indonesia

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is faced with a simmering scandal at the heart of the Democratic Party that he heads, threatening its unity just as jockeying is underway ahead of national elections due in 2014.

On Monday, the president exploded at reporters, denouncing the media and users of social networking sites for spreading what he called false allegations, and saying that “Two days ago there was someone who slandered me from a dark place with a dark heart. This was outrageous slander including personal insults. I say openly they are irresponsible, ignoble and cowardly.”

The president is apparently enraged at suggestions made on social media sites that he or members of his family might eventually be ensnared by a spreading mess involving the Democratic Party’s former treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, who fled to Singapore last week ahead of questioning by anti-corruption investigators over charges that he was involved in a series of scandals, including one related to extorting money from contractors working on the construction of the athletes’ village for the 2011 Southeast Asian Games in Palembang, South Sumatra.

A flock of officials, including Sports Ministry Secretary Wafid Muharam and others, have been arrested for taking bribes to build the athletes’ village for the games, scheduled for September. Nazaruddin also faces claims that he offered a “friendship gift” of $96,000 to the secretary general of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court for unknown reasons.

On Saturday, Yudhoyono met with party officials to try to find a way to bring the errant politician back to Jakarta to face questioning by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). After first insisting Nazaruddin was allowed to go to Singapore for medical treatment, by Sunday the Democratic Party was in damage control mode, saying it would send a delegation to Singapore to bring him home.

After his name crept into the scandal charges, Nazaruddin began telling reporters by phone and text message that he would expose a number of allegedly dirty Democratic politicians, but he stopped short of naming names. His threats, however, seemed to be enough to get the rumor mill working overtime in Jakarta and to expose deep divisions in the ruling party

The rift is significant because although the Democrats are the largest party in the House of Representatives, known here as the DPR, they hold only 148 of the 560 seats. Golkar, the party headed by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, holds 106 and the Indonesian Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, holds 94. In addition, with Yudhoyono’s second term ending in 2014, he cannot run again and there is no odds-on favorite from inside the party to run for president.

“None of this is unusual,” said one seasoned political reporter and editor. “All of our political parties raise money illegally. What is unusual is the president’s reaction.”

The reaction could be explained by the fact that the scandal appears to be touching Yudhoyono’s own family, with Twitter and Facebook messages suggesting that the president’s son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, a first-term lawmaker, is somehow involved.

Originally elected in 2004 as a reformer, Yudhoyono was reelected resoundingly in 2009. However, since his reelection he has taken a repeated beating from reformers who charge he is ignoring widespread graft and corruption. He has repeatedly demanded that various cases be investigated, only to back off later.

The talk in Jakarta political circles is that it was more than graft that upended Nazaruddin.

Rather, there is a major three-way split for leadership of the party and Nazaruddin picked the wrong side. Nazaruddin is said to be close to party chairman Anas Urbaningrum, or maybe was, primarily built on his ability to raise funds when Anas ran for the party’s top post, beating out Youth and Sports Minister Andi Malarangeng and House Speaker Marzuki Alie, who is already in trouble over a US$130 million legislative office tower project that he approved and had to back away from in the face of public hostility.

“The rumor is that somebody put this report out there [on Nazaruddin] and the fur began flying,” a source told Asia Sentinel.

At first the Democrats seemed to think they could hush it all up. Once Nazaruddin’s name surfaced, along with another lawmaker, Angelina Sondakh, the party quickly moved to declare that the two were innocent after an “internal investigation” in early May.

But by then the KPK was getting involved, other politicians were stirring the pot and the public was also reminded that Nazaruddin had been accused by a tabloid newspaper of raping a young woman who was working as a “sales promotion girl” at the party’s national congress a year ago. No charges were filed in the case.

After he was dismissed as treasure last week, Nazaruddin laid it all to politics, telling reporters his firing had been orchestrated by Amir Syamsuddin, secretary of the party’s ethics council, and Malarangeng.

Nazaruddin defended his trip to Singapore by pleading illness, telling local reporters by phone that he had gone for a medical checkup. It appeared that someone in the country’s labyrinthine justice machinery had tipped him to the fact that KPK was requesting an official travel ban that would have prevented him from leaving the country.

Although Nazaruddin said he had approval from the party to go to Singapore, it seems clear that he is now on the outs with Yudhoyono. Party officials told reporters Nazaruddin tried to defend himself to the president personally, naming five other party members he believed were corrupt.

The president was said to have cleared them all, however, firing Nazaruddin himself.

The KPK, meanwhile, played down Nazaruddin’s departure. “You can’t say he’s running away, because what is he running away from?” KPK spokesman Johan Budi said last week. “It’s his right to travel abroad before we impose a travel ban.”