Thursday, May 26, 2011

For Students of History, the Corruption Of Indonesia’s Leaders Is Nothing New

In the 1942 movie “Casablanca,” Capt. Louis Renault, the city’s chief of police, expresses shock to a cafe owner that gambling takes place on his premises. The punch-line immediately appears in a form of a croupier who hands him a stack of money, saying: “Your winnings, sir.”

The scene comes to mind when one considers a more recent drama, the unfolding bribery scandal involving the treasurer of the Democratic Party. Muhammad Nazaruddin is accused of playing a role in both the kickbacks scandal tied to the construction of the Southeast Asian Games athletes village in Palembang and an unsolicited payment to a Constitutional Court official.

Such behavior, unfortunately, is nothing new in Indonesian politics, and related to many obstacles facing political parties. These range from the country’s sheer size, which makes campaigning very expensive, to the lack of loyal leaders and political infrastructure, which forces parties to bribe local strongmen to gather enough votes.

The tale of the linkage between money and power is as old as the history of our beloved republic. Those who study the history of modern Indonesia would not be surprised at current events, as they can find many similarities between behavior and scandals facing today’s political parties and the parties of yore during the rule of President Sukarno.

Even back then, corruption was commonplace, especially ahead of elections. Hugh S. Cumming, Jr., the US ambassador at the time, wrote in a 1954 telegram to the US State Department that an aide to Sukarno, had told him that preparations for the country’s first general elections, in 1955, by the Indonesian National Party (PNI) “were very thorough and far-reaching.”

The aide “had heard the estimate made by a PNI leader in an unguarded moment that through control of the electoral and administrative machinery they could keep the vote down to 30 percent of the qualified electoral list [not yet drawn up] and, if so, could win the elections,” Cumming wrote.

“He said that perhaps I was aware that the PNI ‘preparations’ include the solicitation under pressure of funds from not only the Chinese element of the Indonesian population but also from foreign firms.”

The Masyumi Party, the main rival of the PNI, was the most organized party in Indonesia with branches all over the archipelago. The PNI, while it could rely on Sukarno as its main vote-getter, did not have any strong organization.

As Masyumi was the best-prepared party, the question was not whether it would win the election, but how dominant it would be in the new legislature. Not surprisingly, Masyumi kept demanding the poll go ahead quickly while the PNI and the rest of the political parties were fighting tooth and nail to delay it. Graft and abuse of power was used to catch up with Masyumi, successfully. The PNI went on to win the election, albeit closely followed by Masyumi.

So is that what happened to the ideals of independence warriors? That, just a few years after the life-and-death struggle of the revolutionary war of 1945-1949, politicians were already mired in corruption and scandalous behavior?

The answer was the same then as it is today: None of the political parties in Indonesia are truly rooted at the local level. While parties claim to represent the people, those claims ring hollow.

The easiest way to prove this is to look at parties’ funding: how many of them really get their money from regular people, as opposed to being funded by a small circle of moneyed people closely tied to the political elite, such as leaders of the country’s business conglomerates?

Basically what the parties do is to get enough people to fund their operations, register their parties and start campaigning based on personal appeals or simply buying votes. There is no attempt to build a truly professional political organization from the bottom up or to create loyal, reliable cadres that will help the party gather votes without any demand for political reward.

This kind of campaigning results in a lot of funds being needed to bribe local leaders, who in turn get people to vote for the party.

As parties grow in a nation as large as Indonesia, the need for campaign money is also drastically increasing. This leads parties to engage in graft, such as by demanding payment from their members in the legislature or by siphoning off funds from ministries. At the same time, they also need to get more people funding the parties’ activities and the best way to do so is by “selling” positions in the legislature.

Not surprisingly, many lawmakers are out of touch and arrogant, because they do not see themselves as tasked with representing the people. Therefore, when people are protesting lawmakers’ useless, unnecessary and expensive “study trips” in Australia, Europe and elsewhere, or their wasteful and grandiose white elephants, such as a luxurious new House building, these lawmakers are not at all ashamed. Instead, they are outraged. These seats are rightfully theirs! They bought them for good money. They paid their dues and thus believe that they deserve all the perks.

The corruption scandal involving Nazaruddin is just the tip of the iceberg, as it is highly doubtful that he acted alone. The fact that he became a treasurer of the Democratic Party in spite of allegations that he attempted to rape a woman during the party’s national congress in Bandung last year, meant he was knew how the game is played — and that he knew whom to pay to maintain the party’s electoral dominance.

His alleged attempt to bribe the Constitutional Court, then, should not come as a surprise. The court has been very important in determining the results of many elections in the past few years, particularly in light of increasing doubts about the credibility of the General Elections Commission (KPU), which has been accused of delivering elections to the highest bidder.

With parties that are neither truly representative of local people nor have a reliable political organization at that level of society, it is no wonder that corruption at the level of ministries and the legislature is rife.

It has become the main way for parties in Indonesia to lay their hands on the money they need to ensure their winnings. By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University and researcher at the Global Nexus Institute.

1 comment:

  1. SOME societies are controlled by guilt, others by shame. Then there’s Indonesia, which is rarely controlled by either. At least among the political elite, there is an insuperable ability to avoid accepting responsibility for one’s actions. While American politicians step down quickly enough over sex or corruption scandals (Europeans even faster), and an Indian railways minister will fall on his sword after a horrific train crash, Indonesian leaders have a long record of refusing to resign no matter how serious the allegations against them, no matter how high the level of public pressure.

    In 2000 General Wiranto refused to resign his post as security minister despite accusations that he was responsible for war crimes committed in East Timor the year before, when he had been commander of the armed forces. Two years later the speaker of parliament, Akbar Tanjung, kept on banging the gavel even after he was found guilty of corruption. (Happily for him, the conviction was overturned on appeal.) More recently, a conservative Islamic lawmaker, Arifinto, kept on showing up for work even after being forced to resign: in April he was busted watching pornography on his tablet computer in the middle of a parliamentary session.

    Last week however there were signs that shame might yet rear its ugly head. At least among the party brass, if not yet among the wrongdoers themselves. The president’s own Democratic Party sacked its treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, on May 23rd. Mr Nazaruddin was implicated in a scandal involving the construction of athletes’ dormitories for the upcoming South-East Asia Games, to which Indonesia is playing host. On May 20th, the constitutional court’s chief justice reported that Mr Nazaruddin had offered a court official an unsolicited payment of $100,000 last year as a “gift”. Mr Nazaruddin was also accused of using his influence as a party boss and member of parliament to have one of his former business partners thrown in jail. As if for good measure, he stands alleged of raping a young woman last year during the Democrats’ national congress in Bandung.

    As the allegations piled up the Democrats, who initially denied that their treasurer had any involvement in the dormitory-corruption scandal, perhaps had little choice but to fire Mr Nazaruddin. After all, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the presidency in 2004 and was re-elected handily in 2009 on a platform of zero tolerance for corruption; Mr Nazaruddin’s scandals were becoming too much to ignore. Mr Yudhoyono’s squeaky-clean image has already taken a scuffing over the past two years. He was seen to have allowed the national police to frame two independent anti-corruption commission officials for bribery amid a power struggle right after his re-election. Mr Yudhoyono came off looking the worse when his cabinet’s leading reformer, the finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, bolted to the World Bank a year ago. Upon her departure Ms Mulyani claimed that members of the powerful Golkar party, led by Aburizal Bakrie—who happens to be Mr Yudhoyono’s chief political ally—hounded her out of the cabinet as part of a selfish attempt to hijack the country’s economy.

    For his part, Mr Nazaruddin, possibly in disbelief that he was actually being held to account in South-East Asia’s most corrupt nation, didn’t take his sacking lightly. The next day he lashed out at his own party, claiming that other Democrats, including a cabinet minister, had violated its code of ethics and that they were involved in corruption. Mr Yudhoyono has tried to remain above the fray in all of this. It is an open question whether he can retain any of his good reputation without taking the axe to other members of his party in coming weeks.