Gecko v. Crocodile, Round Three: Indonesia’s Ongoing Fight between the Police and the KPK

In recent years, Indonesia has made substantial progress in fighting corruption. Many observers, both inside and outside the country, attribute much of this success to Indonesia’s anticorruption commission, the KPK. Since its establishment in 2002, the KPK has imprisoned hundreds of tainted businessmen, politicians, and government officials. Thus, it is not surprising that the KPK has made many enemies who are continually trying to weaken, and even dissolve, the KPK as an institution. Some of the fiercest resistance to the KPK has come from the Indonesian National Police Force. Unfortunately, for six years now there has been a simmering conflict between the police and the KPK, which has occasionally erupted into dramatic confrontations. Although the KPK has generally prevailed in these conflicts, the most recent confrontation may be the most challenging yet. The history of this conflict suggests some possible lessons for how to manage the tensions that an aggressive anticorruption agency can sometimes produce.

The first major conflict between the KPK and the police began in 2009, when the KPK named Commander General Susno Duadji, then head of the National Police’s Criminal Investigations Directorate (Bareskrim), as a graft suspect and revealed that his phone had been wiretapped. When asked about the KPK investigations into the police during an interview with an Indonesian magazine, Duadji mocked the KPK’s attempt to challenge him or other members of the police force, quipping that it was like “a gecko challenging a crocodile.” Not long after, the police “crocodile” struck back against the KPK “gecko” when the police named two KPK commissioners, Chandra Hamzah and Bibit Samad Rianto, as graft suspects, and — even more dramatically — arrested KPK Chief Antasari Azhar for murder. The charges against all three were questionable at the time, and were believed by Indonesians to be entirely fabricated — a deliberate attempt by senior police officials to cripple and discredit the KPK. But the crocodile underestimated the gecko: As Rick recently discussed, civil society rescued the KPK with an outpouring of support, forcing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to undertake an independent investigation. Ultimately, the KPK commissioners were cleared and Duadji was found guilty. Gecko 1, Crocodile 0.

But the fight wasn’t over. The second episode of Gecko v. Crocodile started on June 2012, when the KPK named the National Police Traffic Corps Chief Inspector General Djoko Susilo as a graft suspect for his involvement in a corrupt driving simulator procurement project. Again, the police retaliated. On October 5, 2012, dozens of police officers tried to enter the KPK headquarters to arrest KPK investigator Novel Baswedan for allegedly shooting robbery suspects in 2004. As one of KPK’s investigators, Baswedan was instrumental in the disclosure of case involving Susilo. Again, though, the KPK prevailed, thanks to its popular and political support. The investigation into Baswedan was suspended following instruction from President Yudhoyono, and Susilo was eventually found guilty. Gecko 2, Crocodile 0.

But it’s still not over, and the current face-off between the police and the KPK may present even higher stakes, and greater risk to the KPK, than the previous confrontations. The most recent confrontation began when newly-elected President Joko Widodo’s sole candidate for Indonesia’s National Police Chief, Commander General Budi Gunawan, was named as a graft suspect by the KPK for alleged involvement in a multimillion dollar bribery scheme. Just a few days later, the police force retaliated. The police arrested one KPK deputy, Bambang Widjojanto, for his alleged role in getting witnesses to give false testimony in a 2010 election dispute case. The police targeted another KPK deputy, Adnan Pandu Praja, for allegedly owning illegal shares in a company. The police then began a smear campaign against KPK chief Abraham Samad, circulating fake photos of Samad kissing Elvira D. Wirayanti, Miss Indonesia 2014, and accusing him of having “unethical” meetings with politicians from the ruling party. On February 9, 2015, regional police named Samad as a suspect for document falsifications. President Widodo initially attempted to avoid wading into this conflict by declaring himself a neutral party. (President Widodo is in a difficult position, because although he presents himself as an outsider dedicated to cleaning up Indonesian politics, his base of political support is thin, and many observers believe that Widodo nominated Gunawan to pander to Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia’s former President and the leader of President Widodo’s political party.) It appears, however, that President Widodo’s effort to remain above the fray backfired, and the public was outraged by his attempted neutrality.

Events continued to unfold rapidly over the last month. On February 16, the South Jakarta District Court issued a pre-trial ruling revoking Gunawan’s status as a suspect. Nonetheless, on February 18, President Widodo–under substantial public pressure–withdrew Gunawan’s nomination and proposed that Deputy Chief Commander General Badrodin Haiti serve as acting National Police Chief. However, many questioned this decision because Haiti was among the police generals identified by the government’s anti money-laundering institution for having suspiciously large amounts of money flowing through his bank accounts. At the same time, President Widodo dismissed KPK chief Abraham Samad and KPK deputy chief Bambang Widjojanto for being named as suspects in police investigations (these dismissals are required by Indonesian law once commissioners have been named as suspects in a criminal investigation). President Widodo officially inaugurated three KPK acting leaders: Johan Budi Sapto Pribowo, Taufiequrahman Ruki, and Indrianto Seno Aji. While many call the appointments convenient, the track records of the figures are far from spotless. And just last week, on March 12, 2015, the Police Force decided to suspend their investigations into Samad and Widjojanto due to public pressure.

It’s still too soon to tell what the outcome of Gecko v. Crocodile, Round 3 will be, but one thing is for certain: it’s a mess. These repeated conflicts, which may well continue into the future, have caused public outcry and damaged public trust in the government. The question is, can Indonesia learn anything from this mess that will be useful in avoiding such problems in the future? And does Indonesia’s experience offer any lessons for other countries? Here are a few possible conclusions one might reasonably draw from the Gecko v. Crocodile conflict:

  • First, although the KPK is widely considered a great anticorruption success story–and much of the praise is well-deserved–this experience also suggests that some of the current problems have arisen because of the excessive and unstable power granted to the KPK. An anticorruption super-agency will of course help a country to eradicate corruption. However, in a country where almost every government institution is corrupted, granting too much power to the KPK may isolate it, making it seem like the “enemy” of other institutions, especially if the KPK is granted with powers beyond what is usually permissible under Indonesian law. Indeed, this third round of Gecko v. Crocodile may have been triggered by President Widodo’s decision first to grant the KPK the authority to evaluate and veto prospective ministers, and then, second, his decision not to request the KPK to screen Gunawan prior to announcing his appointment as a National Police Chief. So, when the KPK announced Gunawan as a graft suspect, the police viewed this action as an attack by the KPK on the police force and as assertion of the KPK’s power to reject government nominees. The KPK law should be amended to specify the authorities granted to KPK. With respect to the power to vet candidates in particular, President Widodo’s decision submit the list of ministerial candidates to KPK for prior screening was a good idea, but this authority must be controlled to prevent abuse of power. As I argued in my previous post, the amended law should also ensure that the KPK would be responsible for conducting the evaluation transparently, disclosing the elements of evaluation and factors that would make one ineligible to sit as a public official.
  • Second, this crisis reveals the importance of timely intervention by senior political leaders, especially the President. Regrettably, President Widodo never explained to the public his reasons for nominating Gunawan in the first place, even after the KPK named him as a corruption suspect and triggered a public outcry. The absence of explanations inflamed frictions between the KPK and police, as well as the general public’s fury at the Widodo administration. Moreover, after the KPK announced its opposition to Gunawan’s nomination, it took a long time before President Widodo suspended, and eventually dropped, the appointment. President Widodo, or any President going forward, must remain transparent and accountable in naming candidates. Moreover, as the Commander in Chief, President Widodo has the responsibility to mitigate crises like the one caused by the clash between the KPK and the National Police Force. Forming a task force to investigate the accusations and counter-accusations between the two institutions could be the way out. In Indonesia, this kind of task force is usually formed in emergency situations that require purely professional and neutral problem-solvers, consisting of prominent figures with broad experience in handling the relevant problems. In the past, for example, President Yudhoyono had formed a task force to combat the justice mafia. A similar task force would be appropriate in this case, to ensure that the investigation of Gunawan and the KPK’s ex-officers will be free from political bias.

The ongoing conflict between the KPK and the police is unsustainable. Though the KPK “gecko” has generally gotten the better of the police “crocodile” so far, the bigger challenge facing the Widodo administration is to take appropriate action to sustain Indonesia’s progress in the fight against corruption and to ensure that a fourth round of “Gecko v. Crocodile” will never materialize.

8 thoughts on “Gecko v. Crocodile, Round Three: Indonesia’s Ongoing Fight between the Police and the KPK

  1. I wish I could also write something like this mixed up situation in Nepal. We do not have that overt or covert fight like that in Indonesia but there is no less drama like happenings related to fighting corruption. Hopefully, some day, I will share with the readers.

  2. What an interesting (and sad) story about all this fighting between two institutions that are supposed to be working together to fight corruption. Your piece to me touched on the importance of transparency and cooperation for the success of anticorruption agencies/parties/actors. The need for transparency is obvious as you note; clear enumeration of the KPK’s powers and transparency in the process by which they investigate and indict individuals will help reduce these retaliatory measures. How about cooperation? Have there been any efforts to improve cooperation between the police and KPK, structurally or otherwise? While it seems a little dishonest to cooperate with those that are corrupt themselves, it is often practically necessary and without it, many anticorruption efforts have failed. Do you see any ways that the KPK and police can align themselves, perhaps through mutual incentives? Or are they simply too opposite? Those lessons could be important for many other anticorruption efforts around the world that face opposition from certain actors within their countries.

  3. This was a very interesting read, especially how you pointed out that the immense power the KPK was granted eventually isolated the institution. Indeed, knowing that there may be a problem with the extent of power given to the KPK could serve as a remedy to the organizational and operational circumstances it faces. This could certainly be helpful for other governments to keep in mind when establishing not only anticorruption commissions but also restorative justice organizations that investigate human rights abuses on occassions.

  4. This is a very perceptive (albeit depressing) discussion. That said, I’m not sure I’m entirely persuaded by your conclusions. On the one hand, I agree that greater clarity with respect to the KPK’s powers (and the limits to those powers), along with more decisive leadership from the President and other senior political leaders, would have been desirable. But I’m not sure there was really any way to avoid significant conflict between the KPK and other institutions (including the police) without compromising the KPK’s mission. After all, if corruption in the National Police was/is systemic, and the KPK is taking aggressive action to fight it, it’s hard for me to imagine what might have been done to avoid the perception among the police (and other systemically corrupt institutions) that the KPK is the “enemy.” I agree that it needs to maintain the support of the general public and the senior political leadership–but beyond that, I think the KPK both will and should make lots of enemies as it aggressively pursues its mandate.

    I confess even greater skepticism of the potential for a non-partisan “task force” to resolve this conflict. If the reason for the conflict is in fact that the KPK is going after deeply corrupt senior members of the National Police, who are responding with absurd, entirely fabricated frame-up jobs against KPK members (and that seems to be the main storyline here), then I’m not sure what a task force could possibly do to alleviate the conflict. And I’m not sure how it’s possible to assure such a task force would be free from “political bias,” so if you could explain that further, I’d love to hear more.

    Perhaps what this comes down to for me is that, while I understand your points about the need for certain reforms to the KPK’s power (particularly in the area of its role in reviewing appointments), in the main the story here seems to be that the KPK is basically doing what it’s supposed to do, and corrupt police officials are fighting back using blatantly improper means (frame jobs, etc.) to pursue blatantly improper ends (protection of corrupt profits). So while it may be true that the ongoing “gecko v. crocodile” conflict may be unsustainable, as you say, my instinct is that it should be resolved by supporting the gecko and taming the crocodile.

    Am I wrong? You know a great deal more about Indonesian politics than I do, so if you could explain why my take on this isn’t quite right, that would be very helpful.

    • I agree with Matthew that it seems like, if the KPK continues to do its job rooting out systemic corruption, Gecko v. Crocodile Round 4 will definitely materialize. It would be suspicious if it didn’t. In fact, I find the recent “compromise” nature of the KPK nominations problematic and I’m not sure cooperation is the way to go. The most important goal of committed anticorruption activists should be maintaining the integrity and reputation of the KPK. Again, you know much more but I would envision the “rounds” ending only when it becomes clear that the KPK has decisively won. We can only hope that, in these power struggles, the KPK keeps coming out on top and that, as Katie says, it does so with its integrity intact.

  5. Without even the president really backing the KPK up (after initially, it sounds, favoring KPK involvement), it seems like Indonesia is going to be the ultimate test case for whether an anticorruption agency can survive (or, perhaps more accurately, survive with its integrity intact) on public support alone–and whether that public support can hold out when so many officials are determined to tarnish the KPK’s reputation. Thanks for introducing all of us to this ongoing battle.

  6. Jumping off of Katie’s comment, I wonder whether there is any hope that public support could exert pressure on the President and other senior officials to revert back to favoring KPK involvement. That is, at what point will the self-interested desire to fight the so called “enemy” give in to the self-interested desire to maintain a broad base of support among the public? What could the public do in order to ensure that the President remains committed to the KPK’s success?

    Like Matthew, I’m also somewhat skeptical about the task force suggestion, as it seems to simply create another unnecessary layer to compensate for less support from the President. While it seems that public support is certainly important, ultimately the KPK also relies upon the backing of the President to “supporting the gecko and taming the crocodile,” as Matthew suggests. It’s not clear to me that such a task force would be powerful enough to override the pressures that could be exerted by the police force. Wouldn’t such a task force, like the KPK, risk retaliation as well? I am also concerned about what the creation of such a task force would say about the integrity and accountability of the KPK. Is the suggestion that there is as much reason to question the allegations made by the KPK as the retaliatory allegations made by the police force? Or, is this simply a more politically acceptable alternative to strong support from the executive?

  7. Pingback: Don’t Blunt the Spearhead: Why the Proposed Revision of Indonesia’s KPK Law is a Bad Idea | Anti Corruption Digest

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