Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesia: A Legal Plot to Thwart Corruption Fight

Legislators try to hobble the country’s popular anti-corruption body.

Indonesia: A Legal Plot to Thwart Corruption Fight
Credit: REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni

Last month, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (the KPK) was, as usual, on the offensive. It began prosecuting the former chief justice of the country’s highest court, who is alleged to have accrued at least $5 million in bribes by fixing rulings; it confiscated a Bentley, Rolls Royce and 40 other cars allegedly purchased with embezzled state funds by the younger brother of a provincial governor; and it launched an investigation into the Religious Affairs Ministry over $20 million in irregular transactions in the deposit fund for hajj pilgrims it manages.

But the KPK – which is independent, judicious and relentless in going after public-sector corruption – also found itself playing defense. Its chairman sent formal letters to the president and the House of Representatives demanding a halt to deliberations on two bills overhauling the country’s criminal code, which if passed would cripple the KPK and severely undermine Indonesia’s fight against endemic corruption.

In Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranked 114 out of 177 countries surveyed. Though its economy has grown faster than any other except India and China over the last decade, and it boasts a stable democracy, graft deters foreign investment and has a pernicious effect on development. In Banten, the province neighboring Jakarta where the local administration allegedly stole 30 percent of the social aid budget, schools lack books and potholed streets break car axles.

The KPK was established in 2002 by a lex specialis to investigate and prosecute big fish. “There are two kinds of corruption,” KPK spokesman Johan Budi told The Diplomat in a recent interview. “Corruption of need, committed by the civil servant making minimum wage, and corruption of greed. We go after greed.”

In a decade of work the KPK has arrested nearly 400 suspects and seized millions of dollars in ill-gotten assets. It boasts a 100 percent conviction rate, and is widely considered the highest-functioning public institution in a country still largely dominated by patronage-style governance. The Indonesian people, who consider corruption the country’s greatest problem, champion the KPK. “I think the public does see the KPK as a Robin Hood. It steals from those who steal money from the state,” said Budi. “But for that reason, it has many powerful enemies.”

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A Legal Assault

In December 2012, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration sent two bills to the legislature overhauling Indonesia’s massive and antiquated criminal code and criminal procedures code. The House began deliberating the bills just this year, and says it aims to pass them into law by the end of its term in October.

Buried in the legislation’s more than 1,000 articles are a handful of items that would strip the KPK of its independence and investigative capability. The bills would negate the KPK’s extraordinary lex specialis status, and require judicial approval for wiretaps and evidence seizures, giving potential corrupt judges the authority to halt investigations and cancel surveillance. “What if we have to wiretap a judge?” said Budi. “What judge is going to approve a wiretap for himself or a colleague?”

The two bills would also revoke the KPK’s ability to launch its own preliminary investigations into suspected corruptors. Instead, it would only be able to investigate and prosecute cases brought to it by the police and attorney general’s office, which both have a history of corruption and conflict with the KPK.

The Yudhoyono administration and the House have rejected the KPK’s letters demanding a halt to the deliberations of the bills. “There is no intention whatsoever to weaken the KPK,” a presidential spokesman recently told reporters. He added that there would be space for discussion in the House’s deliberations if the KPK had concerns. Legislators have also expressed hope that the KPK will participate in meetings to improve the bills.

However, the spokeswoman for a coalition of civil society groups observing the process, Siti Aminah Tardi, told The Diplomat that the House had been excluding the KPK and other groups from the deliberations, which were being conducted surreptitiously at night, “so as to avoid scrutiny from the public and the media.”

“There is no doubt the criminal code and procedures codes need to be fixed,” Tardi said. “But it’s a massive job that should take three to four years and include input from many sides. It’s illogical that the process be this rushed, shoddy and opaque.”

Conflict of Interest

But with the KPK tugging on threads in several recent graft cases, the logic for House members seems clear: survival.

Courtroom testimony recently revealed that all 47 lawmakers on the House energy commission had accepted cash “gifts” totaling $140,000 from the Energy Ministry to speed up the release of its budget allocation. The head of the working committee deliberating the two criminal code overhaul bills is also being investigated by the KPK for allegedly taking kickbacks to help push a rigged construction project proposal through the House. Were the bills to become law, a judge could order the KPK to cease that investigation. “There is definitely a conflict of interest there,” said Budi.

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The legislature has made no secret of its enmity for the KPK. Last month, the House speaker, who is also a senior member of the president’s ruling Democratic Party, publicly called on Yudhoyono to use executive power to block the KPK’s prosecution of graft suspects from the party.

“Currently, this legal mafia is running riot and making a political intervention,” the speaker was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Post. “There are just too many graft cases and unfortunately our party chairman [Yudhoyono] has not intervened.”

The president, who won reelection in 2009 on an anti-corruption platform, has seen his approval ratings plummet after corruption scandals toppled his party’s leadership and high-ranking officials in his Cabinet.

Until now he has remained unscathed, but charges loom for his vice president, who as governor of Indonesia’s central bank in 2008 was complicit in the illegal, inflated bailout of an ailing bank resulting in state losses of $654 million. Rival politicians have alleged proceeds from the bailout were funneled to Yudhoyono’s 2009 reelection campaign, though no evidence has emerged.

In another potential conflict of interest, the president’s son, who is Democratic Party secretary general, was recently named by a senior party lawmaker in a plot to rig a gas field tender for a company run by his high school classmate.

A Public Defense

The timing of the government’s apparent move against the KPK signals desperation, as more than 90 percent of House members are defending their seats in next month’s general election. Given the popularity of the KPK, siding against it shows a blatant disregard for voter concerns. If parties collude to support passage of the two criminal code bills, however, popular blowback could affect them all equally and make scant difference in electoral results.

Defending the KPK could, however, become a defining issue in the election. The KPK is trying to make it one. “The KPK’s strategy now is to appeal to the people. We have only them,” said KPK spokesman Budi. It is making its case known through national media. Recently, a KPK deputy chairman wrote an op-ed for the country’s most-read daily, and the chairman held a press conference picked up by major news channels.

As the House deliberations progress and the conversation spreads, Indonesia’s nascent democracy may face a crucial test of whether the people can rein in the power of the political elite.

“The public is waiting for the government and House to show their good intentions,” said Tama S Langkun, a researcher at the Indonesia Corruption Watch. “But if they continue on this foolish course, then the people may take to the streets to defend the KPK.”

It would not be the first time. In 2009, the national police arrested two KPK deputy chairmen for allegedly taking bribes to allow a corruption suspect to flee the country. The charges were dubious, coming amid KPK investigations into the national police and the attorney general’s office, and the public demanded the acquittal of the two deputies. Protests broke out in major cities, a Facebook group gained more than 1 million followers and the analogy of the plucky little gecko (the KPK) taking on the crocodile (the police) went viral nationwide.

Though the public pressure spurred a presidential investigation, the two KPK deputies were freed after wiretapped phone conversations – gathered in KPK preliminary investigations – suggested the charges against them had been fabricated by police and state prosecutors in a bid to weaken the KPK.

But unlike in the gecko versus crocodile confrontation, the current attack on the KPK is not criminal conspiracy, but legal process. This time, Indonesia could lose its Robin Hood.

Gordon LaForge is a Jakarta-based journalist.