Gecko vs. crocodile feud traps Indonesia's reformist president

The nomination of a police chief under investigation for corruption has ensnared President Joko Widodo in a row between rival government agencies. His alliance with former President Megawati is now in the spotlight.

Tatan Syuflana/AP/file
Supporters of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) demonstrated outside the agency's office in Jakarta on Jan. 23. They were protesting the arrest of Bambang Widjojanto, deputy head of the KPK, days after he said a national police chief hopeful was a graft suspect.

By nominating a tarnished cop as his police chief, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has triggered a feud between reformists bent on cleaning up the country’s endemic graft and an entitled elite with tentacles in virtually all public institutions. 

Following last month’s nomination of Budi Gunawan, Indonesia’s independent Corruption Eradication Commission said it was investigating bank accounts linked to Mr. Gunawan. Police promptly arrested a senior investigator at the commission, known as the KPK, a move widely seen as payback for the probe into Gunawan. 

The standoff puts Mr. Widodo in a bind. A political outsider, Widodo was elected last year by Indonesians hungry for cleaner politics. But he owes his candidacy to former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who runs his political party and only grudgingly decided not to run for president herself. Now she appears to be calling in favors: Gunawan served as a senior aide during her 2001-04 presidency. Her daughter has also been nominated to Widodo’s cabinet.

The alliance between Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, and Widodo, a self-made businessman, has long been uneasy. The arrest of Bambang Widjojanto, the KPK investigator who has since been released on bail, suggests that the alliance may be fraying, less than four months into Widodo’s presidency.

“The knives are out for the KPK,” said Doug Ramage, a consultant in Jakarta with Bower Group Asia, a US-based investment advisory company. “I didn’t think things would get this bad this fast for the KPK.”

Powerful politicians have long sought to have the KPK defanged. But soon after police arrested Mr. Widjojanto, thousands of ordinary Indonesians poured onto the streets in front of the KPK’s offices in central Jakarta to show their support. Some voiced frustration that Widodo appeared to be wavering in his self-declared fight against endemic graft in institutions like the police, which has a reputation for poor performance.

Improved international reputation

For more than a decade, the KPK has led the charge to clean up the politics and the bureaucracy of one of the world’s most graft-prone countries. Its campaign has netted more than 400 convictions and it claims to have returned roughly $15 billion of stolen assets and money to the state since its inception in 2002. Since then Indonesia has moved to the middle of the pack on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, where it ranks 107th out of 175 countries. In 2002, it was ranked as the eighth most corrupt country.

During last year’s election campaign, Widodo promised to submit all his nominations to KPK scrutiny. Then came the Jan. 10 nomination of Gunawan as police chief and the resulting accusations from the KPK. On Jan. 23, police arrested Widjojanto, the commission’s deputy chair, in connection to a previous investigation into whether he compelled witnesses to give false testimony in 2010 while serving as counsel to regional politicians. Despite the public outrage, police are threatening probes into two other senior KPK officials.

Widodo has said he will postpone a final decision on Gunawan pending the KPK’s investigation. Erry Hardjapamekas, a former KPK official who is now advising Widodo on the nomination, said the investigation could last for months.

"He (Widodo) has already made up his mind," Mr Hardjapamekas told the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club. "He will not inaugurate (Gunawan)."

Gunawan is suspected of having received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, some from junior ranking officers seeking promotions. He has denied any wrongdoing and said the transfers to his bank accounts were legitimate.

David and Goliath

It’s not the first time the KPK and the police have been at odds. In 2009, the KPK investigated senior police officials for taking bribes from senior bank officials and kickbacks linked to the sale of police cruiser simulators.

The feud between the agencies has a David and Goliath flavor, with the KPK in the diminutive role. Disgraced police general Susno Duadji, who was arrested in 2012 and later convicted by the KPK, compared the commission’s investigation to a cicak – a timid insect-eating gecko – taking on a crocodile. The analogy stuck.

The government budgets $3.2 billion annually for the police. The KPK last year had a budget of just over $56 million, but gave back roughly $16 million that it hadn't spent.

Its track record has made the KPK wildly popular. When the police threatened to storm its headquarters in 2012 following Mr. Duadji’s arrest, hundreds of members of the public defensively linked arms in front of the offices.

Widodo’s popularity has taken a hit from the row and grumbles over other signs of elite meddling in his administration. A survey published late last month found three quarters of respondents disapproved of his performance so far. 

That popularity may well slip further unless Widodo is seen defending the KPK, says Adnan Praja, the commission’s deputy chair who has worked there since 2008. He negotiated bail for Widjojanto, promising to give himself up should his colleague abscond.

“Politicians need us to get elected and then they try to forget us,” Mr. Praja says.

An election pledge

During his election campaign last year, Widodo, then governor of Jakarta, signed a pledge in front of a bank of television cameras and journalists at the KPK’s headquarters to protect the agency and to vet all senior appointments for corruption allegations.

Praja keeps the original three-page document bearing Widodo’s signature and that of his deputy, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, in a safe in his office at KPK headquarters. Patting the copy in front of him, Praja warns that unless Widodo steps up his support of the KPK, he’ll denounce Widodo during the next presidential election in 2019.

“I will show this agreement and stand up and say his promise is [garbage],” he says.

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