Wednesday, November 25, 2009

From Stability to Chaos in Indonesia

JAKARTA - Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delivered earlier this week an eagerly awaited announcement on the scandal involving the Attorney General's Office (AGO) and National Police's alleged efforts to undermine the quasi-independent and widely respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which in recent years has convicted top-level officials from both institutions.

But Yudhoyono's vague pronouncement on November 23 failed to clear the air and left unanswered questions about his own possible involvement in the alleged plot. Re-elected in July with an overwhelming democratic mandate, Yudhoyono has more recently experienced a reversal of political fortunes as his corruption-busting credentials have come into doubt and protesters in cities across the country have taken to the streets calling for his resignation.

The political stability Yudhoyono previously represented to both domestic and foreign investors has in recent weeks suddenly come undone, with the specter of possible impeachment proceedings against Yudhoyono and doubts about his freshly elected government's survival. How he handles the allegations and street protests will put his commitment to democratic processes and reform to a stiff test in the weeks and months ahead, political analysts say.

The first hints of potential foul play among Yudhoyono's top ranks emerged with his previous administration's bailout of the mid-sized PT Bank Century. Allegations that part of the rescue funds were diverted to his re-election campaign coffers have been officially and consistently denied, but not yet disproved through a truly independent investigation. On Monday, the Supreme Audit Agency released a report indicating massive financial irregularities in the US$717 million bailout scheme.

Street protesters have called for the KPK to investigate the bailout scandal and more immediately for Yudhoyono, Vice President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati to resign over the allegations of wrongdoing. The KPK scandal appears to involve a wider conspiracy at the highest levels of the judicial and law-enforcement agencies, both of which answer ultimately to Yudhoyono. Whether it was targeted to suppress a possible KPK investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Bank Century bailout is still unclear.

The case against the KPK spiraled from the arrest this May of Antasari Azhar, then the acting chair of the KPK, for his alleged involvement in contracting the murder of a businessman involved in a love triangle with a young female golf caddy.
While in custody, Antasari made and later withdrew allegations of bribery, influence peddling, and extortion within the KPK, a quasi-independent institution that hitherto had a rare reputation in Indonesia's corrupt official context for integrity and independence.

Charges were later filed against two KPK deputy chairmen, Bibit Samad Rianto and Chandra M Hamzah, for extorting money from Angodo, the brother of a suspect in a case they were considering. However, secret tapes of conversations between Angodo and senior police and AGO officials appeared to reveal a conspiracy to frame the two senior KPK officials.

The tapes were leaked to the press and later played in nationally televised court proceedings. They included references to Yudhoyono, suggesting that he was aware of and even possibly supported the alleged frame-up. Street protests erupted over the tapes' revelations, leading to calls for Yudhoyono's resignation and Bibit's and Chandra's release from detention.

In response, Yudhoyono formed an ad hoc fact-finding team, known as the Team of Eight, comprised of lawyers and high-profile anti-corruption advocates to look into the scandal and produce a report of their recommendations. The team found there was no legitimate case against Bibit or Chandra and recommended that the investigations and case building against them be immediately halted. It also recommended a thorough restructuring of the police and AGO.

Yudhoyono made his announcement on the team's findings on Monday and disappointed those who hoped for clear and decisive executive action. While suggesting that the case against Bibit and Chandra should not be taken to court, he was unclear as to whether the case ought to be dropped and the investigations halted. His recommendation was based on what he referred to as "growing public distrust" of the police and AGO.

Going beyond the Team of Eight's recommendations, he added, "Immediate efforts to correct and improve the three institutions are necessary," suggesting that fault could yet be found with the KPK, which since its establishment has produced a 100% conviction rate and jailed a number of former top officials. He added he "did not want disharmony between the KPK, the police and AGO to be permanent".

Chandra and Bibit had indicated their desire to see the case brought to trial so that they could be publicly vindicated of the charges that include abuse of power, bribery and extortion. The defendants' lawyers said after Monday's announcement that they were not clear about the president's intentions and Chandra expressed his confusion to the press, "What does he mean? Maybe we should wait two or three days to see the clearer picture."

Yudhoyono's vague comments underscore his well-known tendency to appease competing camps and maintain a veneer of stability. But the "disharmony" he alluded to is likely to persist as long as the KPK, tasked with uprooting corruption, and the police and AGO, often rated as among the most corrupt institutions in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, remain natural enemies.

Analysts see little prospect of detente as long as the KPK continues to exist and the current top level staffs of the police and AGO remain in place. By likening the squabble to a family affair that could be solved through polite talks, Yudhoyono has raised questions about his leadership and democratic commitment and resurrected complaints often heard during the authoritarian Suharto era about state-protected impunity for wayward top-level officials.

Many commentators have taken the view that Yudhoyono has squandered a golden opportunity to tackle with force the endemic corruption in Indonesia that threatens democratic progress and weighs against investor sentiment. Public outrage over the case has given him the mandate to take radical steps in cleaning up the police and Attorney General's Office. But his lack of action is giving wider currency to perceptions that Yudhoyono is not only indecisive, but potentially complicit in abuse of power and corruption. By Patrick Guntensperger, Jakarta-based journalist.

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