A test for the president


IO – Early last year, in the wake of Indonesia’s hotly contested presidential race, scores of protestors filled the streets of Jakarta and elsewhere.  Many accused the government of being behind a rigged election.  

  When Jokowi’s contestant, Prabowo Subianto, eventually conceded defeat after losing his case before the courts, the mass protests that were once threatening national stability eventually subsided.

  Yet more troubles lied ahead for Jokowi. Indonesian students coming from over 300 universities clashed with the police over a draft bill in the House of Representatives that, if passed, would effectively turn the Corruption Eradication Agency, or mostly known with the abbreviation KPK, into a toothless tiger.

  Despite the public’s outrage, lawmakers–some of whom were under investigation by the KPK–refused to budge.  In September the bill was passed into law.  Anti-graft watchers lamented what they called the end of one of Indonesia’s more revered institutions.

  Now, little more than 100 days into his second term in office, Jokowi must contend with a scandal that threatens his reputation with his supporters.  The KPK has uncovered a bribery case involving Harun Masiku,  a PDI-P politician, who allegedly paid off Wahyu Setiawan, a commissioner of the General Election Commission, or KPU, in an effort to secure a vacant seat inside in the House of Representatives (DPR).  Masiku, who inexplicably managed to escape arrest, is now at large, which has also caused a furor among the public.

  All of which raises several delicate, not to mention thorny, questions. 

   The first question involves the integrity of the KPU as the guardian of fair elections.  When Prabowo Subianto brought his case before the Constitutional Court charging irregularities and fraud in the presidential ballot, his detractors and even the international media dismissed him as a sore loser.  Many critics pointed out that the KPU, which implemented the election, had a clean reputation and was beyond reproach.  

  That is, until today, where there is reasonable suspicion that a senior member of the KPU took a bribe in return for abusing the powers of his office.  One must wonder what other skeletons remain hidden in the KPU’s closet?

  The second question revolves around how the KPK will handle the KPU bribery case.  Critics of the new KPK law say provisions in the legislation threaten KPK’s independence and make it difficult for them to get approvals for wiretaps and conduct investigations.  Indeed, KPK commissioners now must have their work supervised by a board that is driven by political interests.  Will they be able to overcome those interests and rise to the task of properly investigating a case that involves a ruling political party? It remains to be seen.

   Finally, the KPU bribery case could prove to be a litmus test for the president’s commitment to the rule- of-law and democratic norms.    

   In last year’s mass protests over the new KPK law, one of the protestors’ demands was for the president to issue a decree in lieu-of-law that would have effectively sent the legislation back to the House of Representatives for revison.  Yet the president said little, and by doing nothing the law took effect.  

  The president may one day soon resent his decision to remain quiet.  Now is the time for him to speak out.  Although he can’t determine the outcome of investigations around the KPU case, he should at least use his bully pulpit to advocate for a quick and transparent investigation to uncover any wrong doings.  He should also remind the public that this particular case is extraordinary in the sense that it touches upon two institutions of great importance to Indonesia’s democracy: the KPU, whose members must be held accountable if they betray the trust of the people; and the KPK, whose once sterling reputation can be held intact if its office-holders decide and manage to shine a light on the truths underlying the case.