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Indonesian anti-corruption efforts enter minefields

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In Brief

The promise to do something about corruption was one of the two reasons Indonesians gave an overwhelming mandate to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004. The other was security. He ended the war in Aceh, and spectacular arrests by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) have made headlines for years now. He will campaign hard on these successes ahead of the first round of direct voting for president on 6 July 2009. His strongest opponent is expected be Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party PDIP is in opposition.

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Most observers agree Yudhoyono is not personally corrupt, but his anti-corruption efforts faced increasing difficulties this year. Fear of prosecutions seems to be slowing the disbursement of development funding in the provinces.

More serious is growing resistance to the prosecutions in high places. When the KPK arrested several national parliamentarians earlier this year for accepting bribes to pass legislation, others protested and began to look for ways to reduce the commission’s powers. The chase is also coming uncomfortably close to presidential allies. KPK has just announced it is prosecuting a central banker related to the president by marriage, Aulia Pohan, for taking part in a scheme to bribe parliamentarians in 2003. One indicted legislator said he had passed some of this same bribe money to two house members who are now in cabinet.

Moreover, the special Anti-Corruption Court, which has so far convicted all the high-ranking people that have appeared before it, will cease to exist by the end of 2009 because the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional. Parliament has only just begun to debate draft legislation for its replacement. If the political will to clear these minefields falls short, the KPK will join the ranks of past anti-corruption campaigns that eventually stepped on a mine. Meanwhile the regular anti-corruption system – through the attorney general’s department and the district courts – continues to suffer media ridicule over one case of influence-peddling after another.

Mr Yudhoyono’s challenge next year will be to persuade voters that corruption remains a top priority for him. One recent poll showed a clear class divide between the educated middle class, who favour him and his technocratic agenda, and poorly educated farmers and fishers, who tend to prefer the populist Megawati. As president between 2001 and 2004, Megawati was only lukewarm on the anti-corruption agenda. In the end, the real question in 2009 will be: What kind of government do Indonesians want?

This post stems partly from talks at ANU’s Indonesia Update. A full version of my paper can be found in ‘Indonesian politics in 2008: the ambiguities of democratic change’, in the December 2008 issue of the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies.

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