In October 2018, the KPK named its 100th regional head a suspect for corruption. Photo by Muhammad Adimaja for Antara.


When the five new commissioners of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) were sworn into office in late 2015, many observers had serious reservations about how they would perform. But the number of local politicians arrested for bribery by the KPK over the past two years has been truly astonishing.


At least 22 regional heads from a variety of regions and political party backgrounds have been named suspects following “red-handed operations” (operasi tangkap tangan) in 2018. In October, the KPK marked its 100th regional head being named a suspect for corruption since the agency was established.


KPK commissioners have promised to keep investigating and arresting local leaders at their current rate for as long as political parties resist reform and fail to clean up their acts.


The KPK has defied the many threats to its ongoing operations and pessimistic predictions that it would suffer the same fate as similar institutions in other developing countries and be rendered toothless. In fact, it is one of the few examples of functional law enforcement in Indonesia, something that Indonesians are still waiting for from police and prosecutors.


But in the midst of this success it is worth reflecting on the KPK’s strategy. Is it simply targeting the weakest group, regional leaders, who have little to no political protection from Jakarta? And despite the number of arrests, can this strategy encourage significant structural change?

Money politics: political finance reform lagging

Since Indonesia held its first democratic elections after the fall of Soeharto in 1999, money has had an outsized influence on Indonesian politics. Regulations on campaign financing and political party financial governance remain very weak.


A major problem is that the General Elections Commission (KPU) lacks the power to conduct investigations into suspicious campaign financial reports or misuse of political donations. If it detects possible violations, the KPU can only ask a public accountant to audit financial reports, and these audits are compliance audits, not investigative audits. Further, the time limit for the investigation of campaign finance violations is so short (30 days) that it is virtually impossible for law enforcement officials to follow up on any possible infringements.


Worse still, many bribery practices common in internal political party contests cannot be processed legally as corruption. For example, if a candidate for a leadership position in a political party bribes members of his or her party to secure the position, but does not use public funds, there is no legal basis for law enforcement officials to act.


The pervasive influence of money over Indonesia’s electoral democracy means that it is difficult to guarantee that elections are fair and credible, even today. Political parties and election results do not reflect the political aspirations of the public. A handful of capital owners with access and power within political parties still have far too much influence over the allocation of public resources.


Many observers have blamed electoral corruption and the dominance of oligarchs on Indonesia’s dysfunctional party funding system and have called for greater public funding of political parties.


It has been suggested that low public funding for electoral competition has triggered abuse of authority by incumbents. Many regional heads arrested by the KPK have tried to minimise their wrongdoing by claiming that they used bribes or proceeds of corruption simply to fund their electoral campaigns. But the public finds this justification a little hard to swallow when they see the luxurious lifestyles enjoyed by Indonesian politicians.

Is targeting local officials the right strategy? 

The KPK has done heroic work uncovering widespread bribery involving regional heads, yet fundamental structural changes are yet to take place. In 2017, the government did agree to increase state subsidies to political parties by a factor of nearly 10 (from Rp 108 to Rp 1000 per valid vote) to reduce campaign costs, but corruption continued unabated.


Likewise, exposing corruption in the regions is unlikely to push political parties to improve their internal governance. Consider party elites’ response when their members in the regions are arrested by the KPK. Typically, the party will fire the member concerned, or sometimes provide them with legal assistance. But there is rarely any sense of responsibility or accountability from the party.


The problem of corruption among regional political officials is still considered an individual problem, not a systemic issue of political parties. At the national level, meanwhile, political party elites continue to manoeuvre to secure funding from sources that remain opaque and very difficult to account for.


If the KPK is really going to change the culture of corruption among Indonesian political parties it needs to widen its target, from local politics to Jakarta. The question is, does KPK have the power to target Jakarta political elites without suffering significant consequences?


It is possible that the KPK already recognises this problem but has calculated that given the risk of targeting political elites it is better off working at the local level. But the KPK’s main mandate is to tackle corruption by high-ranking state officials and law enforcement officials.


The KPK’s achievements should not be discounted but it is still only working on the surface level. A new approach is needed if it is to break the chain of corruption that has become part of Indonesian political life.


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