current political crisis in Indonesia over corruption

Published November 25th, 2009 - 10:00 GMT

Following landslide victories in general and presidential elections, a coalition led by his own Democratic Party, Islamic allies, smaller parties and politicians from defeated parties, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono starts his second five-year term in an apparently unassailable position. Yet he is overshadowed by a corruption scandal that has caused widespread concern. (Jakarta Globe 05.11.09).

The Chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is on trial for murder and two of his deputies are going on trial for abuse of power and bribery. The focus on TV soap operas has given way to an incredible tale of alleged intrigue, deceit and frame-ups, lighting up the dark recesses of corruption in the police, the judiciary and public administration. (The Jakarta Post 09.11.09).

More than one million Indonesians have reportedly declared support for the KPK on Facebook, and some have also started campaigning against electricity blackouts. (The Jakarta Post 12.11.98).

The nation is spellbound and needs a wizard to wave his wand. But like a Harry Potter story the President must escape from the apparently inescapable, fight the good fight, and emerge victorious, whilst facing three great threats, all of which he must vanquish. And what will he do on his day off?

The Indonesian government has such wide political and institutional support, at least on the surface, that the press and media are almost the only visible opposition. The old parties and elites of the Suharto time are defeated and shunted aside, but they lurk, maneuvering in the shadows.

President Yudhoyono is partly the victim of his own success. His landslides victories.  His canny and comprehensive coalitions. His riding out of the global economic storm. His masterful exploitation of  inaction, as well as action. His ability, until now, to preside over all he surveys.

The other would-be wizards can´t stand it and know they need new wands and better magic. But then that’s why he´s the President, and they are not.

Under his leadership Indonesia rode out the economic storm, maintained growth and is destined to be a world economic power, perhaps number seven or eight, by about 2040, overtaking South Korea , Japan , the UK and West Germany. (Standard Chartered Bank Report 02.09.09)

Almost unbelievable when you see the power cuts in Jakarta and across the nation because the state electricity utility is lost in the darkness of yesterday´s Indonesia, but confronted by a nation that wants to see the light. There will be candles for Christmas for everybody, not just the Christians, or else the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists will be sitting in the dark.

Three things can stop the ship of state, and prevent it sailing boldly, with flags flying, commanded by its captain, on its journey to a great destiny. These are the three threats which the wizard must vanquish or the forces of darkness may defeat him.

The first is physical and the PLN crisis sums it up. Indonesian performance on provision of power, water and modern transportation to the people represents a shameful and crippling failure.

Without infrastructure inward investment cannot be efficiently deployed, coal cannot reach the power stations, raw materials cannot reach factories, goods cannot reach consumers.

This is one giant archipelagic country and it cannot connect and mobilize without infrastructure. Connected with infrastructure it radiates outwards from several hubs spanning five hours across in a jumbo jet. Disconnected it breaks up economically,  partly into foreign-dominated bailiwicks.

Second Indonesian political and social leadership will have to fight for a modern Muslim-led political culture and against a backlash from those who want stoning for adultery, to forbid women wearing trousers and have approved sharia by-laws in more than 400 local authorities.

Underneath these apparent religious motives are the political, commercial and even criminal exploitation of religion, nearly always for power, resources and money.

These retrograde and repressive but unrepresentative and often sensationalized departures from moderate Indonesian Islam are used by the enemies of both to reduce complex truths to simple propaganda, bashing Arabs, Muslims and Indonesia with the same stick. This can cause serious economic damage and has to be got under control.

But the third threat is by far the greatest and could bring the machinery of state and politics to a grinding halt, with open political warfare amongst the political elite spilling over via internet social networking, into potentially widespread popular campaigns against corruption in the police, the judiciary and public administration. Investor confidence and economic growth could be hit by this.

These problems can only be solved in courts and institutions, and through an emerging new political balance, and not in the street or on the Internet. And the wizard must wave his wand soon to break the logjam. And in this land of mysteries, mysticism and shadow puppets with unseen strings, a little political magic would come in handy. 



Last year it was already clear that the massively popular Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was showing signs of getting too damned sure of itself.  Now it is falling from grace. Its chairman faces a murder charge, two deputy chairman are charged with abuse of  power and bribery. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono must make sure he does not fall with them, and still emerge leading a credible anti- corruption campaign. (The Jakarta Post 13.11.09)

Perhaps the Greek fable of Icarus is not so widely known in Indonesia. He had wings on his feet, made from feathers fastened with wax, which enabled him to fly, but he flew too high. The wax melted when he went too close to the sun. He fell from a great height.

So history teaches us basic lessons. No one individual or organization can become omnipotent. The over-confidence of the KPK was missed by its own leadership, but noticed by others. Its leaders were not angels and like Icaras they fell from on high. The Untouchables were touched and proved to be mortal. As Rudyard Kipling told in his book in 1888 about two British adventurers in Afghanistan, `The Man Who Would Be King’.

So when the KPK Chairman Antasari Azhar was arrested on a bizarre murder charge over the assassination of the director of a state owned pharmaceutical company, there emerged a story of intrigue, passion, jealousy and betrayal over a female golf caddy, of allegations of hit-jobs and frame-ups allegedly by top police officers and prosecutors from the Attorney General´s Office, followed by the beleaguered KPK Chairman incriminating his own deputies on allegations of  abuse of power and bribery, perhaps to try and save himself. (The Jakarta Post 11.11.09)

These secondary charges were countered by further allegations of frame-ups backed by a tape recording broadcast live by the Constitutional Court in which a justice broker, a wheeler and dealer trading in the perversion and corruption of justice, the brother of a man under KPK investigation, but typical of those bent upon the systemic subversion of justice in Indonesia, apparently conspired with police and prosecutors to incriminate the KPK deputies, even discussing another possible hit job, while allegedly claiming, repeated by others based on sensationalism and innuendo, that the President himself was said to back this.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

And all this could conceivably, but at a wild stretch of the imagination, lead to the impeachment of a popularly elected President, the best Indonesia has had in a long time, who launched the very anti-corruption campaign which now blows up in his face, and in Facebook.

The KPK anti-corruption campaign, backed by wiretapping and its own Corruption Court, had hit middle to higher level crooked civil servants and contractors. But now layers of local government officials, town councilors and provincial parliamentarians have been fined or jailed and the Sword of Damocles, which Greek mythology tells us only hangs by a thread, has fallen on countless outgoing national parliamentarians, and now hangs over incoming ones.

This is getting closer to home, nearer to the top in public administration and politics, creeping up on colluding business associates like a tiger with its eyes burning bright, hunting implacably in the night. And perhaps in revenge, or self-defense, the innuendo of implication is increasingly aimed at the President and his own family, one of whom has already gone down.

The team of experts called in by the President to report on the KPK case concurred that the evidence against the KPK Deputies seems inadequate, perhaps fabricated and advised that the charges be dropped. But although the AGO sent one set of charges back to the police for more evidence, the steamroller of state rolls on with charges and trials while the people wait to see how the President can extricate himself and the nation from this imbroglio. (The Jakarta Post 18.11.09).

Since the Tehran demonstrations last year it has been clear that computer social networking and Facebook would change the political map of the world.

What happened in Tehran, should have given no comfort to those then seeking the discomfort of the Iranian government. For these events contained messages for Berlin and Beijing, for Hong Kong and Harare, for Jeddah and Jakarta.

And 1.2 million Indonesians have reportedly gone on the net to support the KPK deputies against an apparent police-and-judiciary-backed frame-up, while the political parties in parliament seem complicit with the weakening of the KPK and back the police.

We may have entered a post-political-party era in Indonesia in which new kinds of shifting coalitions based on Internet communities may represent many people´s anger and aspirations better, while reflecting their rejection of political parties and institutions, discredited by corruption and power-broking. This parallels power deflation of conventional politics in Western democracies, but would be more dangerous if it took hold in Indonesia, a younger democracy where democratic institutions need to gain strength before maturing and mutating.

All the more reason to support a popularly elected President to sort out the problems one by one, react calmly to clear injustices instead of panic and arbitrary political interference, and then to strengthen a long-term anti-corruption strategy, not in isolation but as part of public administration reform, while taking steps to reconnect the police, judiciary, parliament and political parties with public opinion in a rapidly changing society.

Otherwise those who accuse him of perhaps wanting to subvert democracy, may perhaps be tempted to do it themselves, and we would have the Bangkok blues in Jakarta´s nightclubs. 



President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono finds himself uncomfortably between the devil and the deep blue sea. His anti-graft campaign is stalled and the anti-graft lobby seems to be accusing him of stalling it, while he says don’t push me to do silly things, and that he will do what he must in due course and later deal with those attacking his own reputation and that of his family. (The Jakarta Post 19.11.09).

This political storm rises as the chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) faces  a bizarre murder charge, while  two KPK deputy chairmen, denounced by its detained chairman, face charges for abuse of power and bribery. The investigative team appointed by the President to investigate says the latter charges may be fabricated and to drop them, but the state judicial and police machinery rolls on with charges and trials. (The Jakarta  Post 18.11.09).

The President is right that precipitate political interference from on high in judicial processes will not solve this. If judicial process is flawed, then judicial process must resolve this, and the political process must reform the judiciary, not subvert it. But he also has the power, at the right time, to reform the leadership of the police.

The President has to rise above the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to lead Indonesia out of the corner into which some of the political elite seek to push him and the nation.

And those who want reform must not allow themselves to be manipulated by those who seek perhaps to avoid that the Sword of Damocles might fall on them next. 

For this wave of anti-corruption campaigns, investigations and trials and tribulations on the road to justice has had such public support that the KPK had become like Elliot Ness and the Untouchables, pitched in battle in Chicago against Al Calpone and the Mafia.

Corruption is a system of relationships and values which hold things together in a certain way and cannot be dismantled without substitutes and broader strategy, nor tackled mechanistically and out of social and political context, for fear of creating endless cycles of destabilizing conflict.

Corruption has grown with democracy and globalization and the increased international activities of governments, aid institutions and multinational companies.

This cannot be solved only by laying about the political, economic and social elite of Indonesia with the Sword of Damocles in isolation from wider social, cultural and international realities and actions. It takes two to tango and Indonesian corrupters have not been dancing on their own in some kind of South East Asian line dance. They have had partners. 

When the British, just by way of an unrelated example, pushed for global progress on money laundering then some of the main culprits on the negative list they themselves compiled included British crown colonies with offshore banking industries in the Caribbean, whose governments were run from Whitehall in London. They who sought reform had first to reform themselves!

Alleged illegal commissions by British companies on arms deals in the Middle East became huge political scandals in the UK, attracting major attention from corruption watchers, including the OECD in Paris, and have never been fully resolved to the satisfaction of many observers. So if the West cannot end such a saga fast and neatly then how can the East ?

The financial crimes of Western bankers and the financial services sector were part of the root cause of the 2008 financial collapse. There but for a little discipline and the grace of God go sharia bankers and financiers as well! Beware and do not repeat these mistakes! Derivatives, high leverage instruments and the collapse of over-levered Islamic bonds could be your undoing !

So nobody´s perfect, and we should take Indonesian corruption in a wider context, albeit that the country has the doubtful honor of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

In the first five years of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government, reform of public administration, especially in the ministry of finance and tax collection, were implemented by small bands of loyal civil servants taking risks and dominating events and procedures where they could, backed by a minority of dedicated and able ministers and the President.

The KPK may have died. Long live the KPK! But something wider and stronger is needed. Or that a reformed KPK is based on the foundation of comprehensive public administration reform.

Rome was not built in a day. The wise man builds his house upon the rocks. The KPK became too isolated from and too much of a threat to the political mainstream. Reform out of step with reality becomes attempted (and failed) revolution or crumbles into dust. Indonesia needs time and a better sense of balance in a new and changing world.

The West is not right about everything and reform must not remove the backbone of what makes things strong and workable, especially a strong state and the networks that hold it together.

The famous advertisement for Heineken lager said that it could reach the parts that no other lager could reach.

President Yudhoyono launched the anti-corruption campaign for which he and the KPK are now being punished and between them they already reached parts that no-one else ever did. But even his reach will only go as far as the society will actively support, and the best outcome for the future will not be obtained if activists focus on his shortcomings instead of his achievements.

In whose interests is it that his overall political thrust and anti-corruption efforts should be blunted? And what better way to do it than to accuse him of not doing enough, or of complicity in corruption or injustice ? 

So the reformers and Facebook fighters should get serious and help build and support the anti-corruption army that is needed and not seek to undermine the only man with the power to put a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy in place, the democratically elected President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, popularly elected to do just that. 



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