Can the KPK and the Indonesian Public Finally Root Out State-Sanctioned Corruption? Updates from Novanto’s Corruption Scandal

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), established in 2003, has had many successes, including prosecutions of several former Ministers, the former Governor of Indonesia’s Central Bank, and a former Chief of Police. As of the end of last year, the KPK had tried and convicted a total of 119 members of parliament and 17 governors, among others. Now, the KPK is on the verge of catching one of its biggest fish yet: Setya Novanto, former Speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives Speaker. Novanto was finally detained, indicted, and brought to trial at the end of last year for his alleged embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (approximately US$170 million) from a 5.9 trillion rupiah national electronic identity card (e-ID) project. Novanto allegedly played a central role in allowing the mark up e-ID procurement costs in order to steal millions and redistribute them to the pockets of around 100 public officials, including approximately $7.4 million for himself. Novanto had been implicated in many previous scandals, but had managed to avoid punishment. This time, prosecutors are seeking a jail term of at least 16 years, plus a repayment of $7.4 million he is suspected of plundering. Novanto denied all the allegations and blamed the Interior Ministry, but the evidence, gathered and submitted by the KPK, is against him. With the final judgment to be made soon, the KPK is on the verge of winning one of the biggest corruption cases against a senior politician.

If the KPK wins this case, it would be an important victory, demonstrating the KPK’s power, as an independent anticorruption agency, to hold accountable even the most powerful politicians, and inspiring the Indonesian public to hold politicians to higher ethical standards. At the same time, though, a victory in this case won’t mean that the war against endemic corruption of has been won: the legislature and other powerful state actors will continue to fight back, especially by weakening the power of the KPK. Civil society, and the public at large, must continue to be vigilant to provide the backing the KPK needs to retain its power and independence.

The prosecution comes at important time for the KPK. Due to its early successes, many Indonesians and outside observers saw the KPK as an encouraging example of the capacity of new, independent institutions to make progress against entrenched corruption. The KPK also successfully increased public awareness of the importance of fighting corruption, building greater pressure on political and business elites not to engage in corrupt acts. Despite the KPK’s low budget, and the persistence of relentless political opposition, strong public support helped make the KPK successful. Recently, though, this optimism has been fading as the KPK has faced aggressive pushback from vested interests, including the legislature and the police. Perhaps most worryingly, the legislature is considering a proposal would bring the KPK under the control of the executive and the legislature. There have also been more covert efforts by politicians to weaken the KPK by reinterpreting the functions of the commission without altering the KPK law itself. Resistance to the KPK’s investigations has sometimes turned violent: last year, for example, a prominent KPK investigator was severely injured by an acid attack by assailants suspected to be tied to actors in the e-ID card corruption scandal.

The Novanto graft case has only heightened the tensions between the KPK and entrenched political elites. In order to resist these incessant efforts to reduce the KPK’s powers, the media and the public must continue to be vigilant and to voice their concerns about attempts to stymie the KPK’s efforts to curb corruption. Civil society should continue to monitor the trial to advocate for a stringent sentence on Novanto, not allowing the judges to be swayed by vested interests, and Novanto’s political allies, who are expected to push for a drastically reduced sentence. The panel of judges selected to handle the case under Indonesia’s Corruption Court are Yanto, as the chief judge, Frangki Tambuwun, Emilia Djajasubagi, Anwar and Ansyori Syarifudin, as panel judges. Yanto, who was newly appointed to handle the case in December 2017 with the rest of the panel judges, is believed to be a man of “high integrity” and most recently served as the Chairman of Central Jakarta District Court since June 2017. Nevertheless, considering that last year, this same panel, then overseen by judge Butar, “removed some of the names mentioned in the prosecutor’s claim as the recipient of the bribe,” the media and civil society must continue to carefully monitor the trial’s compliance with legal provisions. The public, both ordinary citizens and concerned politicians, should be ready to take their concerns to the streets, if Novanto gets away with his crime once again, as impunity despite evidence would be a mockery of the Indonesian judiciary.

More generally, the Indonesian public should continue not only to defend the independence of KPK, but also to demand an increase in its funds for it to be fully effective. The international community also has a constructive role to play, scrutinizing not only the Novanto case, but also the government’s posture toward anticorruption enforcement and prevention more generally. Such global engagement would provide the Indonesian public with some much-needed extra backing.

If the KPK wins the Novanto case and the court imposes a sentence that is appropriate in light of his egregious crimes, the KPK will be empowered to catch even “bigger fishes”—and to gradually dismantle to system of patronage, corruption, and impunity that has plagued Indonesia since independence.

5 thoughts on “Can the KPK and the Indonesian Public Finally Root Out State-Sanctioned Corruption? Updates from Novanto’s Corruption Scandal

  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Heesu!

    You mention that the Indonesian public should continue not only to defend the independence of KPK, but also to demand an increase in its funds for it to be fully effective. Because of the apparent push back against the KPK by the legislature, I’m curious how likely you believe that possibility is, and what steps, if any, the Indonesian public can take to protect the KPK and increase funding.

    • Thanks for the comment Jimmy! That’s a very good question, and an important issue that Indonesia must continue to grapple with. I think because it will be an uphill battle without proper political support, civil society must continue to engage with politics, build the right alliances, and continue to advocate for change. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the past have successfully formed alliances and networks to spearhead the anti-corruption movement in Indonesia, bringing KPK to life and have reported numerous key corruption cases as well. Hence, I think what the public should do and can do is to continue to engage in activism through coalition with CSOs, and not just stop at the (potential) victory of one case.

      P.S. The trial is tonight EST (Tuesday Jakarta time), so we’ll see what the final verdict is!

    • Thanks for the follow-up! What do you think of the sentence? That seems pretty substantial, even if it is below what prosecutors requested.

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