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December 11, 2020

Asia

INDONESIA: Another cabinet minister falls to anti-corruption drive

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 3 mins)
  • The recent high-profile arrests of two cabinet ministers for corruption delivers several near-term benefits.
  • However, only time will tell if these developments reflect real institutional momentum or are more of a public relations effort.
  • The arrest of a minister from the president’s party, PDI-P reflects more on MegawatiSukarnopturi, its leader, rather than President Joko Widodo.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) earlier this week ordered the arrest of the Minister for Social AffairsJuliari Batubara of the president’s own Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P). According to the KPK, Batubara received IDR 8bn (USD 567,000) in kickbacks from private contractors who were providingCovid19-related food aid. The scheme involved contractors paying government officials a commission of approximately IDR 10,000 (USD 0.70), or three percent, for each IDR 300,000 (USD 21) food package allocated in their contracts.

KPK investigators believed that total amount lost to have been around USD 16mn, with the charges against Batubara covering only a limited set of documented transactions. The Koran Tempo newspaperestimates an even higher rate of corruption relative to program cost of 10% to 17%. Under the 1999 Anti-Corruption Law, profiting from corruption directly related to a humanitarian crisis is punishable by death.

Batubara’s arrest for corruption in the delivery of pandemic relief at least makes it more likely that forthcomingsocial amelioration programs will be less vulnerable to malfeasance, which is positive for social stability given the adverse economic conditions.

The arrest – the second of a cabinet minister in three weeks – willalso understandably raise hopes that last year’s amendments to the KPK law have not compromised its capabilities. From September to December last year, the country saw regular protests, often led by students, against the recently passedchanges to the KPK lawthat increased executive oversight of the agency, placed a limit on the time that investigations could remain active, and allowed it to draw officials from the police, with its potential for conflicts of interest. The criticism increased after Widodo appointed South Sumatra police general FirliBahuri as KPK chair in September 2019, despite the fact that allegations of ethical misconduct had dogged him for the past decade. As recently as September 2020, KPK’s advisory commission reprimanded Bahuri for an ethics violation, for having taken a private helicopter in a trip to his hometown.

Therefore, despite the recent developments, some skepticism that KPK officials are attempting to rebuild the agency’s image, and possibly their own, may still be warranted. Alternatively, Bahuri may also recognize the political benefits of high-profile KPK investigations, especially since there is speculation that he is eyeing the position of national police chief since Police Chief General Idham Azis retires next month. Bahuriis one of the only six active three-star police generals eligible to take his place. Given the black box that is the internal decision making of the KPK, only time will likely tell if the recent anti-corruption drive reflects real momentum in the agency to push good governance, or is more of a targeted public relations effort.

For Widodo, the embarrassment of an arrest of a cabinet member from his own PDI-P falls more to the party’s leader Megawati Sukarnoputri. Batubara is the party’s vice-treasurer, which is the position responsible for party fundraising, and therefore establishes him as a party cadre selected by Megawati to represent it in the cabinet and not as a personal choice of Widodo. Other PDI-P figures have been charged with and convicted of corruption including 2019 parliamentary candidate Harun Masiku, but Batubara’s position both within the party and government arguably make it the most high-profile anti-corruption arrest in PDI-P’s history.