A light in dark corners

By: Nithin Coca - Posted on: June 11, 2015 | Current Affairs

It is tough, honest, has legions of fans and has never lost a case. The Corruption Eradication Commission is Indonesia’s most popular government institution. But some suspect it is under threat from a powerful rival – the police force

In 2000, Indonesia was facing a crisis. With a shambolic economy and a newly established, but weak, democracy, there were great fears that the vestiges of the Suharto era – namely, cronyism and corruption – would haunt the country’s future. In those days, Transparency International, a global NGO that monitors and publicises corruption, ranked Indonesia near the bottom of its annual Corruption Perceptions Index with an abysmal score of 1.9 out of 100. Such a figure suggested rampant corruption at virtually every level of government.

Public backing: anti-corruption activists hold placards in support of the KPK during a protest in Jakarta in January. Photo: Mast Irham/EPA
Public backing: anti-corruption activists hold placards in support of the KPK during a protest in Jakarta in January. Photo: Mast Irham/EPA

Fuelled by the support of donors such as the World Bank, as well as civil society groups and an Indonesian public fed up with the graft of the recently-ended Suharto era, the Indonesian government was pushed into creating a strong entity to fight corruption. The Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK) was born in 2002 and given considerable powers to investigate, try and prosecute bureaucrats and politicians in nearly every institution. To the surprise of many, the KPK attacked the role with a zeal unseen in Indonesian politics for decades. Its 100% record of 86 convictions from 86 trials is seen by many as a gold standard against which anti-corruption agencies around the world can be measured.

“The KPK is clearly seen as one of the strongest anti-corruption institutions in the world, showing recognition that this is a serious problem worth tackling,” said Samantha Grant, regional coordinator for Southeast Asia at Transparency International.

A true watershed moment took place in 2009 when the KPK named Aulia Pohan as a suspect and proceeded to try him. The remarkable aspect of the case was that Pohan was a relative of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Along with three others, Pohan was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for embezzling IDR100 billion ($7.7m). The fact that the KPK would try and convict a family member of the president, something unheard of in the Suharto era, went a long way in winning the hearts of many Indonesians.

This no-nonsense approach did not win it any friends in many branches of government, particularly the National Police, which Grant said is regularly cited as the most corrupt institution in Indonesia according to Transparency International studies.

“The KPK, as an institution, is the only institution [in Indonesia] that still holds the public’s trust,” said Natalia Soebagjo, executive director of the University of Indonesia’s Centre for the Study of Governance. “The police and the judiciary are acknowledged as the most corrupt institutions in the country.”

Indeed, the police have emerged as the political old guard’s strongest ally and, thus, the KPK’s chief enemy. The police have tried and failed twice to directly attack and weaken the KPK. In 2009, the police, angry that they were being wiretapped by the KPK, arrested two KPK deputy chairmen on charges of extortion and bribery – charges that were subsequently dropped after presidential intervention.

In 2012, it was the KPK that struck first, detaining Inspector General Djoko Susilo on corruption charges. The police then recalled their investigators seconded to the KPK and attempted to arrest the chief investigator in the case, Novel Baswedan. Once again, presidential support was essential in the KPK pushing forward with Susilo’s conviction.

Earlier this year the two institutions went head-to-head again. After the KPK named police chief nominee Budi Gunawan as a graft suspect, just ten days later the police arrested KPK commissioner Bambang Widjojanto for allegedly providing false testimony in a five-year-old police case. Many civil society leaders have decried these as trumped up, possibly falsified, charges.

The KPK survived its first two encounters with the police thanks largely to the twin factors of overwhelming popular support and the strong backing of the president. The former is still there, as evidenced by public demonstrations in support of the KPK across Indonesia, including one organised in front of the KPK headquarters on January 25 by a coalition of Indonesian civil society organisations, and others at government centres in nearly every major Indonesian city. What is missing this time is the strong presidential backing, leading to fears that the KPK might be weakened.

President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, rose to prominence and the presidency on the back of his squeaky clean image and his ability to get things done. He was expected by many to be a champion of anti-corruption efforts as president. As such, waiting for weeks after Gunawan was named a graft suspect before withdrawing his nomination, as well as his weak public support for KPK commissioners who were charged by the police, surprised many. In mid-April, Indonesia’s parliament approved Jokowi’s backup candidate for national police chief, Badrodin Haiti. It remains to be seen how the appointment will affect the KPK, though it could certainly be argued that the situation as a whole has left the organisation in its weakest state since its formation.

“Jokowi needs to act [quickly] and decisively… and stay true to his anti-corruption principles,” said Soebagjo. “Right now, it looks to the public as if he has forsaken his principles for miscalculated political expediency. I hope he hasn’t.”

Suspect: KPK commissioner Bambang Widjojanto speaks to the media earlier this year. Charges brought against him by police have been decried as exaggerated. Antara Photo Agency/Reuters
Suspect: KPK commissioner Bambang Widjojanto speaks to the media earlier this year. Charges brought against him by police have been decried as exaggerated. Antara Photo Agency/Reuters

Some commentators have suggested that Jokowi is not capable of standing up to his party, the Indonesian
Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which supported Gunawan’s nomination and, like most Indonesian political parties, has a history with the KPK. It faced its wrath just last year, when a KPK investigation led to the sentencing of top PDI-P politician Izedrik Emir Moeis to three years in prison for accepting $423,985 in kickbacks from a foreign company.

“Jokowi is backtracking because of influences from his own political party,” said Grant, who also partially attributed the president’s weak response to inexperience. “Part of the problem is that he’s never had to try to govern a coalition… he was always an outsider and did his own thing, but now he is having to deal with party politics.”

The implications of a weakened KPK and the abandonment of the country’s fight against corruption are almost unthinkable for Indonesia. The reverberations would affect not only public trust, but also the country’s global image and its ability to attract international investment.

“When you look at the narrative of ‘new Indonesia’, one of the pillars is fighting corruption. You don’t want to lose that pillar,” said Gregory Poling, an Indonesia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies
in Washington.

Furthermore, with Southeast Asia on the rise, international investors are increasingly carrying out their due diligence in this exciting but relatively unfamiliar territory. As the region’s largest nation, and one of the bastions of the impending Asean Economic Community, Indonesia’s situation is being monitored particularly closely.

“Corruption is becoming more and more of an issue for companies, which are always looking to reduce their risk,” said Grant. She added that if the KPK is weakened, Indonesia’s incoming foreign direct investment could suffer as a consequence. Moreover, with the approach of Asean integration, the reverberations would not be felt only in Indonesia. “More and more companies are looking at Asean as one economic bloc… what one country does with regards to corruption will affect the entire region more,” she said.

With the stakes so high, and with corruption still entrenched in Indonesia’s key institutions according to Grant, it seems crucial that the KPK not only survives fully intact but is actually strengthened by the implementation of similar institutions at other levels of government. It could certainly be argued that the biggest hindrance to Indonesia’s corruption fight was, in fact, the KPK’s mandate – which has always been limited to tackling corruption at the highest level of government.“The KPK is not sufficient to tackle such a systemic problem. Ideally, the KPK takes on high-end cases and relies on other state organs to take on corruption at other levels of government,” said Poling.

Many are calling for a strong national recommitment to the anti-corruption fight that began back in 2002. The president, in particular, seems under pressure to become the champion that the people were sold.

“Jokowi should position the KPK as a counterpart to eradicate the entrenched oligarchy. His credibility is built on public trust, and the public supports anti-corruption and the KPK,” said Adnan Topan Husodo, chairman of Indonesia Corruption Watch, a non-profit organisation that works closely with the KPK.

In the end, it is hoped that a public that often experiences corruption on a daily basis might be able to save the KPK once again.

“There is growing anger among Indonesians,” said Poling. “… if they push forward with these cases, I believe the public will come to the KPK’s back.”