By: Our Correspondent

As Indonesian President Joko Widodo prepares for his new presidential term, the fallout continues from his decision to back a proposed law to weaken the country’s deeply respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Protests are continuing across the country, putting the president under persistent pressure against the passage of the law in the House of Representatives, which could still be nullified. The matter has cast a forbidding shadow over Jokowi’s presidency although until this point he had been regarded as a reformer and modernizer from outside the power structure of one of the world’s most deeply corrupt countries. The president is due to install his new cabinet on October 20, with reform organizations waiting anxiously to see whether the new cabinet will reflect reform or turn Indonesia back to the corruption of the past. 

Nearly 1500 people have been arrested so far in a series of student protests over the weakening of the KPK in Jakarta and other cities, with hundreds facing charges of throwing rocks at the police, throwing Molotov cocktails and spreading false information, national police said. Six police have been charged in the death of two students who were shot in South Sulawesi when a protest against the proposed law turned violent on September 26. 

Although pressure has continued to mount from senior figures such as former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mahfud MD and former KPK commissioners Taufiequrachman Ruki and Chandra Hamzah and public protests continuing, coalition parties aligned with the president have continued to reject the issuance of a Perppu, or letter from him putting the law on hold.

“A week after the meeting, a wave of rejection from political parties is mounting,” the group said in a public statement on October 4. “A number of inaccurate arguments have been put forward, misleading the public that a Perppu cannot be issued.” 

The agency is arguably Indonesia’s most respected public institution, responsible for the arrest and conviction of hundreds including the former head of the Constitutional Court, the senior deputy governor of Bank Indonesia, government ministers and a flock of regional politicians including governors, mayors and others and the heads of regulatory agencies. Arguably its biggest scalp was that of Setya Novanto, the former head of the House of Representatives, who was jailed for 15 years on corruption charges earlier this year. 

The global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International warned that “Attempts to weaken the independence and authority of the KPK have serious potential to undermine its commendable anti-corruption efforts in recent years. Indonesia has languished in the bottom third of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for several years.”

 The government, said Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of Transparency International, “should be making greater efforts to tackle corruption and not do anything that might undermine them.”

Despite the protest, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and other coalition parties have continued to have solidify their hold on power with Puan Maharani, a political near-neophyte and daughter of PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri, named the speaker of the House of Representatives, making her the country’s first female speaker and heir apparent of the nation’s largest party despite her lack of political experience.  

Puan Marahani was named by Setya Novanto, the jailed and disgraced former House of Representatives speaker whom she replaced, as having received US$500,000 in a giant scandal over the issuance of smart identifications cards in which as much as US$244 million is believed to have been stolen.  No action has ever been taken against her.

With Megawati’s backing, the PDI-P agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Golkar, the country’s corruption-riddled third-biggest party, agreeing to back Golkar’s Bambang Soesatyo to head the People’s Consultative Assembly, which is composed of both the People’s Representative Council, or house of representatives, and the Regional Representative Council (DPD). The informal agreement serves to keep Gerindra, the country’s second-biggest party and the vehicle of twice-failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, at bay. 

The president goes into his new five-year term facing more problems than just the flap over the KPK. He agreed to place on hold a controversial bill that critics said would make the country as repressive as Islamic governments in the middle east, criminalizing homosexual relationships, outlawing sex outside marriage and other troubling features that was backed by his own vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, the head of the country’s biggest Islamic organization, which had been looked upon heretofore as relatively moderate.

In addition, the country is more vulnerable to an economic downturn, as the World Bank warned in a study which was issued in September. Its state-owned enterprises are said by other sources to be loaded with debt and the shariah banking system could be equally shaky. Illegal fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra to clear land for oil palm plantations have also raised public anger against the government, which in addition faces a growing independence movement in Papua. 

But it is the action against the KPK which has caused the biggest upheaval. Under the legislation, which is due to come into effect soon, the KPK must shut down investigations if they can’t be completed within two years, weakening their efforts to handle complex corruption cases. Other attempts in past years to handcuff the agency have been met with massive public protest.

KPK employees would also be forced to become civil servants instead of enjoying their current status as independent operatives. Originally an ad-hoc independent institution, it would become part of the executive branch under a supervisory board consisting of five people tasked with overseeing its duties and authority to grant licenses for wiretapping and searches, and establishing a code of ethics. 

Most disturbing, the legislature also recently appointed five KPK commissioners for the 2019-2023 period amid criticism from anti-corruption activists and legal experts. The agency would be headed by a police officer, Insp. Gen. Firli Bahuri, who in the past was accused of “gross ethical violations” during his time as a KPK law enforcement deputy in 2018.

Firli was an assistant to the personal secretary of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2010 and an aide to Vice President Boediono in 2012. Boediono has been questioned by the KPK as a witness in the Bank Century bailout case in which trillions of rupiah were stolen and whisked overseas. The KPK is currently investigating the case even though there have been no significant developments. Under the new rules, the Bank Century case would be dropped because of the two-year limit. 

Other legal institutions such as the police and prosecutors are considered too corrupt and unable to eradicate corruption. In order for its functions to be maximized, the KPK has been equipped with several authorities including the right to tap without permission from other government agencies. There is no system to abort cases, no supervisory agency limits the KPK’s scope of work. These authorities are now limited.