Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lawmakers Sow Disillusion in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s House of Representatives barely passed any laws in the first year of its current term, placing critical pending legislation on matters related to national security, welfare and natural resources on the back burner.

Still, lawmakers recently managed to squeeze in trips to South Africa, Japan and South Korea for what they said were fact-finding missions to research a bill on this country’s Boy Scouts.

Even by the powerful body’s low standards — it consistently ranks as Indonesia’s most corrupt institution, and 9 percent of its previous members have formally been named as suspects in various cases of graft — the House has drawn fierce criticism for its recent behavior. Besides the legislative inaction and a growing appetite for junkets, lawmakers have focused their efforts on securing a new $180 million building and discretionary “aspiration funds,” that critics describe as pure money grabs.

The country’s aggressive news media and watchdog groups have highlighted the House’s excesses, in often mocking tones. But critics say that the state of the current crop of 560 legislators — widely described as the least effective since the start of political reforms in 1998 — points to deeper problems about the health of Indonesian politics: unchecked, deepening corruption that threatens to breed disillusion about democracy.

“The House now has a very serious problem of legitimacy,” said Rocky Gerung, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia. “People just don’t trust it anymore. There’s no political culture, no ethics. They don’t understand the basics of democracy. There is only a black market of political transactions.”

Coming out of an authoritarian era in which it served as a rubber stamp for Suharto, the longtime military ruler, the House increasingly acquired legislative and budgeting powers in the past decade. Today, it shares the political stage with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who, despite having been re-elected in a landslide last year after running on strong anticorruption credentials, has been acting indecisively against vested interests.

Meanwhile, the House continues to be ranked as Indonesia’s most corrupt institution by Transparency International. According to Indonesia Corruption Watch, the country’s leading antigraft organization, nearly 50 members of the previous House, which served from 2004 to 2009, have been named as suspects in cases in which the charges include skimming money from public projects and accepting bribes for endorsing the nomination of a candidate for a high-ranking position at the Central Bank. Several current members are also under investigation.

Watchdog groups say that current members, who began the second year of their five-year terms this month, have spent most of their time on infighting and overseas travel, as well as pursuing lucrative projects.

The seven bills they passed in the current term’s first year were related to the budget or carried little legislative significance, according to Formappi, a private organization that monitors the legislative body. By contrast, in the first year of the previous House’s term, 14 bills were passed, according to Formappi. In Indonesia, the president lacks a veto, which allows the House to pass bills on its own.

“This is the worst House since reformasi,” Sebastian Salang, Formappi’s executive director, said, referring to the reform era starting in 1998. “Considering their lack of performance, they are an obstacle to Indonesia’s democratization.”
House leaders called the criticism unfair and, explaining that first-term lawmakers accounted for 70 percent of the body, pledged to do better.

“This is like a volleyball match: the ball hasn’t gone up yet, and the people are already smashing it,” said Jafar Hafsah, chairman of the Democratic Party faction, the Legislature’s dominant party. “What we are doing now is passing the ball around.”

But the House, critics say, has abused its powers. Two major campaigns — seeking approval for the new $180 million building and the “aspiration funds” worth $1.65 million for each member — are bald attempts to siphon off money, critics say.
“The House is like a stock exchange,” said Uchok Sky Khadafi, an official at Fitra, a private organization that monitors government budgets. “Everything has its price. And if a project has no value, the members are not interested in it.”

An official of Golkar, Mr. Suharto’s old party and the strongest supporter of the aspiration funds, said that the money was actually meant to reduce corruption.
“In Indonesia, democracy is identical to money politics,” said Ade Komarudin, a high-ranking Golkar official who has been a lawmaker since 1997, one year before the start of the reforms. “If there is no money, people will not vote for us.”
The aspiration funds, he said, would spread the money more evenly to all members, including “ones who don’t have the money or who are stingy.” Lawmakers would choose the recipients of the funds, ostensibly for projects in their districts, but local officials would manage the money.

Lawmakers will be able to focus on other more important matters “rather than engaging in corruption here, corruption everywhere, to serve constituents who are asking for money,” Mr. Komarudin added.

Experts said that lawmakers’ intensifying search for lucrative projects was rooted in a 2009 electoral change that was supposed to increase accountability. For the first time, voters directly elected their representatives, who had previously been chosen from party lists. The result was that candidates, who needed to spend much more money to win support, often borrowed money to finance their campaigns.

Alvin Lie, a lawmaker who served from 1999 to 2009 but lost a bid for a third term, said that in 1999 a candidate needed $10,000 to $20,000 to run a campaign. In 2009, candidates needed at least $330,000 just “to be considered a strong contender,” said Mr. Lie, who has started, a C-Span-like service covering the Indonesian Legislature.

“I’m very concerned about Indonesian politics,” he said, speaking about the past decade’s efforts to make politics more accountable. “After 10 years, I don’t think we’re going forward. I think we are just stuck here, and, to a certain extent, we may be going backward.” By NORIMITSU ONISHI

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