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Issue #1683      May 6, 2015

Indonesia at a crossroads

It is, quite possibly, the biggest political battle in Indonesia’s young democratic history. On one side, the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK), or Anti-Corruption Commission, which enjoys the backing of the Indonesian people; on the other, the National Police, cited as one of the most corrupt institutions in surveys carried out by Transparency International, seemingly bent on undermining the KPK’s autonomy.

The first punch was thrown earlier this year when the KPK named police chief nominee Budi Gunawan as a bribery suspect, leading the police to retaliate by arresting and charging two KPK commissioners with what many see as trumped-up, falsified charges.

What happens next could determine the future of Indonesia’s critically important fight against corruption, as well as seriously impact the democratic and economic future of all of Southeast Asia.

The rise (and fall?) of the KPK

In 2000, Indonesia was facing a crisis. With an economy in shambles and a new democracy, there were many fears that the political legacy of the three-decade-long Suharto dictatorship – namely, cronyism and corruption – could damage the country’s future.

Back then, Transparency International ranked Indonesia near the bottom of its annual corruption report, with a score of 1.9 (100 pointing to very low corruption in public institutions). Indonesia’s score showed that there was rampant corruption at nearly every level of government.

Donors, including the World Bank, and civil society pushed the Indonesian government to create a strong entity to fight corruption. That’s how the KPK was born in 2002, embarking on its mission with a zeal unseen in Indonesian politics for decades.

Its record has been outstanding so far – 86 cases tried, 86 convictions, a 100-per-cent rate that acts as the gold standard for anti-corruption agencies.

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

“If the police win, we will find the corrupt acting with impunity.”

One of the watershed moments took place in 2009, when the KPK named Aulia Pohan as a suspect and proceeded to try him. Pohan was a relative of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for embezzling 100 billion IDR (US$7 million) from the Indonesian Banking Development Foundation.

The mere fact that the KPK would try a family member of the president, something unheard of in the Suharto era, went a long way in winning the hearts of many Indonesians.

“KPK, as an institution, is the only one which still holds the public’s trust,” said Natalia Soebagjo, Executive Director of the University of Indonesia’s Centre for the Study of Governance, adding that “the police and the judiciary are acknowledged as the most corrupt institutions in the country.”

The police have emerged as the old guard’s strongest ally and thus the KPK’s chief enemy. This should come as no surprise – fighting a government rife with corruption is no way to make friends. This is the third time the police have tried directly to attack and weaken the KPK. In the past, presidential intervention has saved it. This time, however, the police might finally succeed.

As of now, the KPK’s case against Gunawan has been withdrawn, but the two arrested commissioners are still facing charges, and have been replaced with “interim” members that many in Indonesia’s civil society fear are Trojan horses who will destroy the KPK from within. There is no signal that the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, will intervene.

Regional impacts

This is a big year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the EU-like apparatus that brings together the diverse countries of Southeast Asia. Indonesia is its largest member, and it is seen as a model for the region, having shifted from a dictatorship to a multiparty democracy in less than two decades.

The KPK is a big part of that success, and many cite it as a reason that Indonesia’s democracy has proven so resilient. The implications of a weakened KPK and the abandonment of the country’s fight against corruption are huge.

The reverberations will affect not only public trust, but Indonesia’s global image and ability to attract international investment. In fact, international investors are increasingly concerned about corruption, closely monitoring the situation in Indonesia.

“Corruption is becoming more and more of an issue for companies, which are always looking to reduce their risk,” said Samantha Grant, adding that if the KPK is weakened, she expects that Indonesia’s incoming foreign direct investment will suffer as a consequence. Moreover, with the coming of ASEAN integration, it may be not just Indonesia, but the whole region that will be impacted.

“More and more companies are looking at ASEAN as one economic block … What one country does with regards to corruption will affect the entire region more,” explained Grant.

There are wider concerns for governance, too. Southeast Asia is a region with few democracies and little free press and, apart from Singapore, it has widespread, high levels of entrenched corruption. Countries like the Philippines, with its floundering, weak anti-corruption ombudsman, have looked at Indonesia as a model for improving their own anti-corruption fights, but may now find that this model is broken.

Another country affected by Indonesia’s internal strife may be Burma, which enjoys close ties with Indonesia, whom it sees as a guide for a possible transition from military dictatorship to an open, multi-ethnic democracy. At the moment, Burma is in the process of drafting its own anti-corruption legislation, and there were hopes that it could replicate its own version of the KPK ahead of critical elections later this year. That is now in jeopardy.

Recommitting to the fight

During the reign of General Suharto from 1967 to 1998, corruption was a way of life for many government officials. Even today, corruption remains a daily concern for many Indonesians, who report regularly paying bribes to police and local officials. The KPK is just one institution, with a relatively narrow focus on high-level government officials. Though it has made an impact and brought the anti-corruption fight to the mainstream, the fight is only just beginning.

“There is still a high level of entrenched corruption in Indonesia’s key institutions,” said Grant. The blame for the continued menace lies not with the KPK, which only has a limited mandate, but in the fact that the country has not implemented effective KPK-style institutions at regional and local levels.

Thus, what Indonesia needs is not a weaker KPK, but a strong, national recommitment to the anti-corruption fight which began in 2002, but remains crucial to the country’s future today. Only then can its democratic potential be reached.

The alternative is dire, according to Natalia. “If the police win, we will find the corrupt acting with impunity, our natural resources plundered and our economy weakened due to the lack of trust in the law enforcement agencies,” she said.

New Internationalist

Next article – Protests for justice will grow

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