Vote-buying breeds Indonesia’s ubiquitous corruption

Abdurrahman Syebubakar Chairperson Institute for Democracy Education (IDe), a Jakarta-based think tank advocating social democracy and anti-corruption

IO – Following the end of Soeharto’s new order authoritarian rule in 1998, Indonesia has undergone a redesign of the political system.

It has also pursued a wide range of anti-corruption reforms such as fiscal transparency and financial monitoring, civil service reform, and establishment of the anti-corruption body KPK.

Despite these reforms, along with the process of democratization and decentralization, corruption remains pervasive in the country.

Since the beginning of the 1998 reformation, and especially during the last two decades, Indonesia’s score on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (TI’s CPI) has grown very slowly, if not stagnated.

Even in 2020, the country’s CPI score dropped sharply to 37, from 40 in the previous year, making its rank slip by 17 points, from 85 in 2019 to 102 among 180 countries.

The CPI scores 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to experts and business people. The CPI uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean (see

Moreover, in the TI’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) Asia 2020, Indonesia is reported to have the highest percentage of citizens (92%) who consider government corruption to be a major problem.

The report also discloses that Indonesia has the highest rate of sextortion – the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage, and the third highest overall bribery rate in the region at 30%.

Indonesia’s low and worsening CPI coincides with the widespread incidence of corruption in all branches and levels of government.

Referring to the KPK’s case handling data recap as of June 2020, instances of corruption at the central level constitute about one-third of the country’s nation-wide graft cases, and many of these implicate high profile figures, particularly, in the government and parliament.

Corruption is also rampant at regional government levels. The Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), for example, documented more than a thousand graft cases in 2017 and 2018, involving many local leaders and politicians.

Multiple factors are said to have contributed to Indonesia’s ongoing problems with corruption. These range from ambiguous legislation and judicial system to weak institutional capacities and law enforcement.

The extent to which such factors associate with corruption, and strategies to address them have been widely discussed and extensively researched.

Yet vote-buying in elections, which forms an essential part of the root causes of corruption, is overlooked. Here, vote- buying, locally known as money politics (politik uang), is generally defined as the action of providing cash or items or services in exchange for votes.

The underlying logic behind vote-buying breeding corruption is that this malpractice makes the electoral process much more capital intensive, hence offering politicians opportunities to raise campaign funds from different sources, particularly

oligarchic tycoons. Once in power, politicians and political parties tend to commit corruption to recover campaign costs and substantially reward their oligarchic sponsors in return.

A survey conducted by the KPK of 270 candidates in the 2015 regional elections found that one of the driving motives for corruption was the desire to recover the resources they had invested in the political campaigns and repay debts to parties that had sponsored their nomination (The Straits Times 2017).

As a matter of fact, parallel to the persistent incidence of corruption, the practice of vote-buying has been and continues to be pervasive in Indonesia. Having tripled since the country’s first direct election in 2004.

Some studies suggest that, in the 2009 election, roughly 11 percent of voters admitted experiencing vote buying, while in the 2014 and 2019 elections, respectively, about one-third of voters were exposed to this malpractice. Putting Indonesia third among countries globally with vote-buying, after Uganda and Benin (see Burhanuddin Muhtadi 2018, Edward Aspinall and Ward Berenschot 2019, Marcus Mietzner 2019).

The TI’s GCB Asia 2020 reveals Indonesia being the third highest in election abuse, among Asian countries, where 26% of citizens are offered bribes in exchange for votes in national, regional or local elections.

Based upon anecdotal evidence, the practice of vote buying in the 2019 election remained high, even escalated, involving high profile political figures.

Towards the voting day on 17 April 2019, for instance, a senior minister was reported to give an envelope to an elderly cleric (kiai sepuh) while visiting an Islamic boarding school in Bangkalan, Madura of East Java. The Minister at the time asked the kiai to encourage people to vote for the incumbent presidential candidate.

At the end of March 2019, a member of parliament from the governing party coalition was found to split the cash of 8 billion rupiah into almost a

half-million envelopes for distribution to voters.

In this connection, a cabinet member was allegedly involved to raise funds by “selling” trade policy instruments to oligarchs. Besides, as revealed by (October 17, 2018), the success team of the 2019 incumbent presidential candidate raised campaign funds by trading government programs with tycoons.

Apart from distributing cash, during the 2019 election, politicians were reported to commit vote-buying by delivering groceries or health insurance cards to the public. As divulged by Marcus Mietzner (2019) a political scientist at the Australian National University (ANU), many candidates switched to less ‘vulgar’ vote buying approaches by offering club goods, such as donations to worship houses, soccer clubs or for the renovation of schools or village roads, etc.

Subsequent to the 2014 and 2019 elections, corruption has escalated. Based on data from the KPK (2020), instances of graft reached some 700 cases in between these two elections. It was more than double the number of graft cases which happened during the previous five years.

At the central level, among the high-profile scandals occurring between 2014 and 2019 include the PT. Jiwasraya Insurance Company fraud and the Asabri Military and Police Pension Fund. With some 40 trillion rupiah in state losses, these two cases have become the largest graft scandals ever in the political history of Indonesia, implicating high profile figures in the government including the presidential staff office, parliament, governing political parties and tycoons.

Post-election in April 2019, at the end of 2020, the KPK arrested the Indonesian fisheries minister over graft in baby lobster policy and social affair minister over graft in the covid-19 social assistance program. These two recent graft scandals are estimated to have caused nearly 3 trillion rupiahs in state losses, and involve the

president’s inner circle and other political elites in the governing political parties.

Likewise, at regional levels, incidence of vote buying and that of corruption tend to be parallel – where there is more vote buying, corruption is higher, and vice versa.

Between 2004 and 2020, a number of sources disclosed the acceptance of vote-buying in provinces of Java and Sumatera islands was prevalent, with approximately half of voters finding such malpractice acceptable.

In parallel, data from the KPK as of June 2020 revealed more than half of the country’s some one thousand graft cases occurring in Java and Sumatera islands. In the period of 2004 – 2020, majority of local leaders (governors, mayors, regents) as well as local law makers and ex-law makers arrested by the KPK over graft scandals come from the provinces of these two islands.

Given that vote buying permeates Indonesia’s electoral politics, and tightly corresponds with pervasive corruption, unless the former is addressed, one cannot expect to reduce the latter.

In order that strategies are effective in curbing vote-buying, hence reducing corruption, there necessitate to understand the relationship patterns between these two ill political behaviors. Equally, their causal pathways as well as the extent to which different forms and levels of vote buying leading to the varying degrees of corruption in different electorates require to be explored.

Above all, a strong commitment from the state – the government and parliament in particular – to addressing vote-buying by making the electoral contestation less capital intensive becomes an absolute need. Likewise, there must be punitive measures or sanctions, such as criminal charges and/or disqualification from elections, impartially imposed on politicians and political parties convicted of practicing vote-buying.