Scandal-scarred Asian Games Underway

The Southeast Asian Games, wracked for months by a scandal that threatens the viability of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, are due to start tomorrow amid widespread problems including sick athletes and unfinished infrastructure.

Although organizers continue to insist the games will be successful, most observers are deeply skeptical. The games have become a national embarrassment for a country anxious to vault onto the world stage with a showcase event.

With nearly 16,000 athletes and officials, 666 events are scheduled for the games, expected to last over the next seven days in Jakarta and the provincial capital of Palembang in Southern Sumatra. Athletes from 11 nations are competing in 56 sports.

The scandal-ridden athlete’s village in Palembang, the center of bribery allegations that have claimed the political careers several of Yudhoyono’s party leaders isn’t big enough to house anywhere close to the number of arriving athletes. Some Filipino athletes have been unable to find rooms, triggering a comment by a games official in the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the games are shaping up as “the “the most chaotic ever.”

Agence France Press reported that intestinal problems had hit football players from Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia who are staying at a leading Jakarta hotel, and that as the Games torch reached Palembang, thousands of workers were still rushing to complete basic drainage in a country where torrential rains are often a daily event.

Because beds for athletes are in such short supply, the Indonesian Navy is supplying ships to anchor offshore to supply housing for about 1,500 people in Palembang. The athlete’s village will house only about 2,000 athletes. Another 8,000 are expected to find other quarters in Palembang, with yet another 4,500 filling all of the hotel rooms in the city.

“It’s God’s will that the Games will run smoothly. We’ve been working hard for a long time under difficult circumstances, but I’m confident the Games will go well,” The games chairwoman Rita Subowo told AFP. “We have finally finished the venues, but we are putting finishing touches on them, like scoreboards and mattresses for the wrestling matches.”

Trillions of rupiah in taxpayer funds been poured into the games. But they began to go sour last May when the Democratic Party’s treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, hurriedly left for Singapore for “medical reasons” a day before he was due to be banned from traveling allegedly because he had accepted US$3 million in bribes on tenders for the construction of the village facilities.

Nazaruddin was widely believed to have been tipped off to get out of Indonesia because if he had been arrested, he could describe the involvement of other Democratic Party leaders, possibly including the president’s own son, Eddie Baskoro Yudhoyono, according to Twitter and Facebook messages that suggested his involvement.

The party chairman, Anas Urbangingrum, considered to be one of Yudhoyono’s reformers, was also implicated in the scandal by Nazaruddin, who was finally cornered and arrested in Cartagena, Colombia, and flown back to Jakarta.

The scandal has spread beyond the Democratic Party, with members of the House of Representatives Budget Committee facing questioning as well, including Malchias Marcus Mekeng of Golkar, Olly Dondokambey of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and Tamsil Linrung of the Prosperous Justice Party. Mirwan, the budget committee deputy chairman, who was named by Nazaruddin as one of those who had allegedly assisted in rigging the bid for the contract for PT Duta Graha Indah for the village.

Private citizens have been caught up in the scandal as well, with stockbroker Mindo Rosalina Manulang being jailed for four years and businessman Muhammad El Idris for three and a half. The two were arrested in April after delivering Rp3.2 billion ($374,000) in checks to the ministry’s secretary, Wafid Muharram, who has been suspended.