Indonesia's graft-busters to voters: No crooks in parliament, please

Indonesians vote Wednesday to elect a new parliament amid disillusionment over endemic corruption. Since 2002, 73 lawmakers have been convicted of graft.

Beawiharta / Reuters
Supporters of Indonesia's Democratic Party of Struggle shout slogans in Jakarta on March 16. The party has named the hugely popular Jakarta governor as its candidate for July's presidential election, but first it must score at least 20 percent of the votes in the parliamentary race on April 9.

When Indonesians go to the polls Wednesday to elect their lawmakers, the country’s elite graft watchdog hopes to implant a simple thought in their minds: “Choose the Honest.”

If that sounds too simple, consider that since 2002, when the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was set up, it has arrested and convicted 73 members of the national parliament, many caught red-handed receiving bribes. Other recent scalps have included the chairman of the ruling party, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the head of the country’s biggest Islamic party.

So last month the KPK launched a public service campaign – its first ever – imploring voters to consider the track records and background of roughly 200,000 candidates standing for over 19,000 local and national seats. The aim is to reverse a tide of apathy among voters fed up with corrupt politicians. Ironically, this apathy has been fed by the KPK's success in exposing the larceny at the core of public life in a country that has long been ranked among the world’s most corrupt. 

Indonesia’s graft-busters hope that a more engaged and educated electorate can help to combat political graft, rather than giving up altogether on the democratic process.  

“If the public wants government that is transparent and accountable, they need to be involved,” says KPK deputy chairman Adnan Praja. “There aren’t enough of us to vet all 200,000 or so candidates.”

Irksome independence

The commission, which has a 100 percent conviction rate in special anti-corruption courts, has its own agenda: staying independent and effective. For politicians in its crosshairs, this independence is particularly irksome. The next parliament, and the interim lawmakers serving until it sits, may decide to rein in the KPK, which critics accuse of carrying out witch hunts of well-meaning lawmakers.

Two bills currently before parliament would amend legislation on criminal procedures and the criminal code to require the KPK to obtain a court order before wiretapping a suspect. The proposals would also transfer sentencing authority from the KPK to the attorney general's office, which itself has been a target of KPK investigators.

The bills failed to pass before the House of Representatives rose for recess ahead of Wednesday's elections. The concern is that returning lawmakers, with a fresh mandate or smarting from a loss and with nothing left to lose, will push the proposals through before the new 560-member parliament convenes in October.

Kevin O’Rourke, an independent political analyst who writes a weekly Indonesia-focused newsletter, says there is a fair chance that the bills will pass. “Legislators hate the KPK,” he says. “They will be striving to neutralize it.”

Declining voter turnout

Indonesia’s public institutions were remade after the fall of dictator General Suharto in May 1998. Voters turned out in droves the following year for the first free elections held in four decades.

In 2004, the first time that Indonesia’s president was directly elected, turnout was an impressive 84 percent. By 2009, though, just over 70 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot.

That downward trend may continue in 2014. Without citing data, Mr. Praja suggests that perhaps half of the electorate is so disgusted with high-profile corruption cases they will stay home on Wednesday.

Even the stratospheric popularity of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, seen as a shoo-in for president, may not reverse this slide. Mr. Widodo is standing for the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle in the July 9 presidential poll. But the party must first win 20 percent or more of seats in parliament in order to nominate him.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is the attitude of young voters in a country with a median age of 29. Roughly 67 million are eligible to vote for the first time. Many have no memory of life under Suharto or the chaos that followed his downfall.

Stephen Lock, chief executive of the Indonesian arm of Edelman, a US-based consultancy, forecasts that at least 40 percent of voters under the age of 30 won't bother to vote Wednesday. And while Widodo’s candidacy has led to comparisons with US President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, it may not translate into get-out-the-vote buzz.   

“There are no obvious signs of a reenactment of the ‘yes-we-can’ euphoria that got Americans out to vote for Obama,” Lock said.

Secret investigations

Born out of frustration with Suharto-era corruption, the KPK was designed to be independent. Internal investigations, which are headed by commissioners, are kept secret from other teams to avoid tipping off potential targets.

When the KPK was created in 2002, Indonesia ranked near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. In 2013, Indonesia ranked 114 out of 177. 

However, civil-society activists have pointed out that the KPK has shied away from investigating Indonesia's military, the backbone of the Suharto regime. And, despite successful convictions of tax inspectors that accepted bribes from companies, no major tycoon has been prosecuted. 

The commission, which employs 1,000 staff, struggles to attract talent with a clean record. Last year it received 34,000 applications for 300 positions but only hired 180 after background checks ejected most prospective staffers.

“We don’t like to gamble,” Praja said.

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