When President Joko Widodo came to power in late 2014, many people believed that he would strengthen the foundations of the movement against corruption. Jokowi was considered unencumbered by any significant debts to major political or business groups and therefore well placed to provide the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and its allies in civil society with the support they needed. Unfortunately, things turned out quite differently last year.
Jokowi’s first year in power saw the most aggressive attacks on the KPK in its short history. There was a surge in intimidation and “criminalisation” of anti-corruption actors, with police targeting the leaders of the KPK, its investigators and staff, as well as scholars and anti-corruption activists supportive of the institution. Legislators, too, renewed efforts to cripple or disband the KPK and twice launched unsuccessful attempts to revise the law on the institution, in June and October 2015.
This atmosphere of intimidation has had an impact. In contrast with previous years, when the so-called gecko versus crocodile conflict between the KPK and police galvanised the public, civil society support for the KPK was comparatively tepid in 2015. This was a crucial development because in the democratic era it has been the public that has stood up to state actors attempting to derail anti-corruption efforts. While countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan have succeeded in tackling corruption because of strong political leadership, success in fighting corruption in Indonesia can be largely credited to its vibrant civil society.
So after a rotten year for the KPK, what are the prospects for corruption eradication in 2016? The KPK will soon move to a new office building not far from its cramped premises on Jalan Rasuna Said in South Jakarta. This will be a landmark moment in the history of the civil society movement against corruption. In 2012, when the House of Representatives (DPR) refused to allocate state funds to finance the construction of the new building, civil society launched a nationwide campaign, “Coins for the KPK”, to raise money for the institution. Thousands of Indonesians contributed small donations, eventually raising more than Rp 424 million (AU$44,500) to support the institution. Although the money collected was only a small portion of the building’s eventual cost, the depth of public support for the institution shamed the DPR into approving the construction budget.
The new building also serves important practical purposes. The old KPK building was designed to house only a fraction of the KPK’s 1,000-plus employees, many of whom now work in rented offices some distance away. It is hoped that housing all employees in one building will improve efficiency and communication among staff. The new building also includes expanded detention facilities. At the moment, corruption suspects are often housed in other facilities not managed by the KPK, increasing the risk that suspects may continue to communicate with their collaborators or be pressured by corrupt law enforcement officials.
One problem that the new building is unlikely to solve is, however, the divisions that exist among KPK staff from different institutional backgrounds, each with their own interests and work cultures. The fact that a large portion of KPK staff are “on loan” from other state institutions, such as the police or prosecutor’s office, has led to the creation of opposing factions of temporary and permanent staff.
Although legislators’ calls for the KPK to focus more on preventative efforts are largely motivated by self-interest, there is some merit to these suggestions. There is a need to improve the balance between preventative and enforcement efforts to ensure that the KPK does not end up simply putting out fires. Recurrent corruption in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, for example, is always related to the same issue – management of hajj funds. The KPK is no superpower but improved coordination between prevention and prosecution might help to make a dent in such persistent problems.
An additional factor likely to affect the success of anti-corruption efforts in 2016 is the new KPK leadership group, appointed in late 2015 by Commission III of the House of Representatives after a lengthy and politicised selection process. When Agus Rahardjo, Basaria Panjaitan, Alexander Marwata, Laode Muhammad Syarif and Saut Situmorang were named as the KPK’s new leaders, activists and the public responded with pessimism. The group only had limited anti-corruption experience overall and there were questions about the integrity of some of the commissioners. Some KPK staff quietly lamented that they expected their work would suffer, because the quality of their bosses was lower than in previous years. Many observers who were initially disappointed now appear, however, willing to give the new leaders time to prove themselves.
A challenge for the new leadership of the KPK will be to improve its political and public communication strategies. The KPK is an independent body and it must remain that way. But sometimes this independence is interpreted as exclusivity by senior officials, including the president. There is an art to safeguarding independence while maintaining healthy and effective communication with the president and other senior officials. Past events have shown that this is critical to the sustainability of the anti-corruption agenda.
Similarly, the new leadership team will need to focus on internal communication. At times, the head of the KPK has been too dominant with respect to other commissioners. Solidarity and mutual respect among members of the KPK leadership team is a vital source of resilience when the KPK comes under attack.
Despite the pessimism of many elements of civil society about the new leadership team, at the time of writing the KPK was investigating Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician Damayanti Wisnu Putranti for receiving bribes. One case does not prove much, but it does show that the public should not abandon the KPK just yet. With only weak support from the president and legislature, the KPK continues to need civil society on its side.