COVID-19 aid vulnerable to politicizing by officials running to stay in office

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Photo of social aid with incumbent official stickers for Regional Elections campaign. (Photo: Prive. Doc)

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste” – Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago 

IO – There have been calls to evaluate the social aid distributed by the Government for citizens affected by COVID-19 in a number of regions, thanks to the proliferation of politicizing social aids for 2020 Regional Head Election campaigns. Member of the Ombudsman of the Republic of Indonesia (ORI), Alamsyah Saragih urges that social aid should be changed from basic necessities to cash. In this way, politicizing efforts can be prevented, as the aid is transferred directly to citizens suffering from the pandemic. The media have reported how incumbent officials place promotional stickers on aid packages. The most viral and infamous one is social aid distributed by Regent of Klaten Sri Mulyani. 

Alamsyah said that social aid from the current Government has been aimless: They include things starting from basic necessities to Pre-Employment schemes, and meant for too many diverse groups. This means that the speed and accuracy of aid distribution is limited. “We need simpler forms that match group needs better,” he said in the online discussion titled “Politicizing COVID-19 Funds in the Interest of Simultaneous Regional Elections 2020” held by the Indonesian Voters’ Committee (Komite Pemilih Indonesia – “Tepi”) on Tuesday (05/05/2020). 

Absence of Legal Basis 

Chairman of the Election Monitoring Agency (Badan Pengawas Pemilihan Umum – “Bawaslu”), Abhan stated that the social aid for COVID-19 distributed in the Regional Elections years is highly vulnerable to politicizing. Of the total 270 regions holding Regional Elections in 2020, there are 224 incumbent official candidates. Therefore, it’s no surprise that there is so much politicizing of social aid for sake of the Elections. “We note that social aid funds are really vulnerable to abuse of authority for Regional Elections by incumbent officials,” he said. 

Article 76 Paragraph 1, letter “a” and “d” of the Law Number 10 of 2016 (or “Regional Government Law”) regulates a number of prohibitions regarding Regional Heads and Vice Regional Heads. Article 76 Paragraph 1 Letter “a” rules that Regional Heads and Vice Regional Heads are prohibited from making decisions that specifically benefit them personally, their families, their associates, or a specific group or political association in violation of applicable rules and regulations. Article 71 Paragraph (1) of the same law rules that Regional Heads are prohibited from changing positions from six months before the date of candidate announcement until the end of their term of office, unless they have written approval from a Minister. However, this year’s Regional Elections have been delayed due to the pandemic. “In other words, we have a problem in implementing this Law to resolve the case. It is a matter of uncertainty: The relevant Government Regulation in Lieu of Law (Peraturan Pemerintah Pengganti Undang-Undang – “Perppu”) is not yet issued. Furthermore, no Candidate Pair has been determined,” he said. 

Furthermore, Article 73 Paragraph 1 of Regional Elections Law, which states that Candidates and/or their Campaign Teams are prohibited from promises and/or distribution of monies or items for the purpose of affecting Electoral Organizers and/or Voters cannot be implemented yet, as no Candidate Pair has been determined, no Campaign Team has been registered to the Elections Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Umum – “KPU”), and no campaign period is has yet been set. Bawaslu, as an executor of the Law, cannot overshoot the authority of the Law, as that would be a breach of the Code of Ethics, and they must deal with the Honorary Council of Electoral Organizers (Dewan Kehormatan Penyelenggara Pemilihan Umum – “DKPP”). 

However, Bawaslu has taken steps to prevent abuse of authority in relation to social aid for the interest of the Simultaneous Regional Elections. The first step is by sending a letter that requests that all Regional Heads not mix humanitarian acts with Regional Elections politicking. 

Abhan stated that the option to hold Simultaneous Regional Elections on 9 December 2020 is the first one several factions have put forth. Bawaslu in its turn believes that there will be a potential for violations if the Simultaneous Regional Elections are held in December 2020. “Holding the Elections after such a long delay makes it even harder for incumbent officials to abuse their power, as it would be difficult to differentiate campaign moves and COVID-19 social aid,” he said. 

There are other potential violations that might occur amid the complexity of COVID-19 mitigation steps, such as money politics; the structured, systematic, and massive mobilization of administration by incumbent officials; and manipulation of voter lists. Bawaslu notes samples of abuse of authority, such as social aid packages being affixed with photos of Regional Heads and other political symbols. “Social aid is no longer impersonally distributed on behalf of the Government, but personally attached to the delivering official. The people should be alert to these moves and report them,” he said. 

Delaying Regional Elections 

Indonesian Voters’ Committee Coordinator Jeirry Sumampow warns Regional Heads who are the incumbent candidates in the Regional Elections 2020 to not perform manipulative practices such as image-building by making use of these aid programs. That is highly unethical and immoral. “From our notes, we can say that politicizing COVID-19 mitigation aid programs is found in at least some areas. The most famous for this is Central Java, especially in the Regency of Klaten. Other instances are found in Lampung, Bengkulu, South Sumatra, East Java, West Java, North Sumatra, South Sulawesi, and DKI Jakarta,” he said. 

Jerry stated that the pandemic situation is vulnerable to practical political uses. Natural disasters in Indonesia are frequently used as stages for image-building by political candidates (especially incumbents). For example, Regional Heads are prone to using part of the Regional Budget to print out stickers and banners with their photos, or to deliver aid to citizens themselves. “Giving out social aid like this would help influence the citizens to vote for them. There are also things like the color of the aid packaging. For example, we found aid packages wrapped in yellow bags (the color of a political party) in Bekasi. There might be some sort of explanation about it, but we should note it as a case of politicizing aid,” he said. 

Jeirry stated that this potential abuse of authority relating to aid programs happens because Regional Heads have full authority to shift budgets autonomously. This is even strengthened by the Central Government’s instruction to shift budgets for mitigating COVID-19. “Another issue is transparency of distribution. Financial transparency is always an issue, whether in Central or Regional Governments. Another potential loophole is actual medical equipment and medication expenditures. If we don’t monitor those properly, there is a very high potential for abuse,” he said. 

Therefore, Jeirry suggests that Regional Elections should be held in 2021. Initially, KPU RI, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and Commission II of the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat – “DPR”) of RI plans to hold Regional Elections on 9 December 2020, after delays due to COVID-19. “The plan to hold Regional Elections in December provides the opportunity to misuse social aid – especially during the hiatus. Hiatuses seem to be the perfect opportunity to do something that nobody can punish you for. Might as well, why not hold it in 2021?” he said. 

Also present in the online discussion was the former Chairman of the Community Forum for the Care of the Indonesian Parliament (Forum Masyarakat Peduli Parlemen – “Formafi”), currently Vice General Secretary of the Functional Group (Golongan Karya – “Golkar”) Party, Sebastian Salang; he did not deny that politicians in the regions are now concentrating on Regional Elections. Incumbent officials would instinctively find ways to make use of some of the budget meant for social aid to improve their image and obtain public support. As there is currently no law that can restrict them, Sebastian believes that public help in this matter is extremely important. From his side, he does not think it would matter if Regional Elections are delayed until 2021. “Even though we have set the Simultaneous Regional Elections for 9 December 2020, we don’t know for sure when the pandemic will end. In any case, let’s just think not about Regional Elections until then,” he said. 

Sebastian admits that in general, Government social aid always encounters issues, even under normal conditions: The aid may not reach the correct target (i.e. rightful beneficiaries don’t get the aid, undeserving people get the aid thanks to data mix-ups), incumbents distributing aid packages to their constituent regions instead of other, more desperate regions that do not contain their mass’ basis, etc. “In order to prevent these abuses of authority and to ensure that social aid reaches the correct target, we really need valid critique, input, and information about these abuses of pandemic aid,” he said. 

Similarly, Indonesia Budget Center’s Executive Director Roy Salam states that lack of monitoring and transparency in aid distribution have turned humanitarian aids into mere political tools. “This is why social aids tend to be turned into political vehicles. The incumbent official candidate is the one with the greatest potential to commit this violation. We need to put monitoring instruments in place,” he said. (Dan)