Democracy on the cheap

The arrest last week of the top leader of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) on corruption charges is a reminder of the precarious financial situation that all Indonesian political parties face. Operating with limited financial resources, parties may have gotten a little too creative in raising funds for the likes of the country’s anti-graft ...

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

The arrest last week of the top leader of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) on corruption charges is a reminder of the precarious financial situation that all Indonesian political parties face. Operating with limited financial resources, parties may have gotten a little too creative in raising funds for the likes of the country’s anti-graft commission.

PKS President Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq is the latest in a list of top elected Indonesian politicians implicated in corruption scandals. Those before him have included politicians from the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who ironically enough, was elected in 2004 and again 2009 on an anti-corruption platform.

None of the big parties are free from corruption scandals. One possible reason is that the politicians running the parties are often tasked with raising money for the party’s coffers. Even Golkar — which is the most financially well-endowed of all Indonesian parties, as it is backed by the diversified Bakrie business group, with former chairman, Aburizal Bakrie, also sitting as Golkar party chairman — has not been spared from graft scandals.

With Indonesia heading into an election in 2014, these parties will likely be scrambling for more money to finance their campaigns. And as long as the issue of party finances is not resolved, parties will likely be forced to circumvent the law in their efforts to come up with the money. They somehow seem to think that they won’t get caught.

Indonesia has organized three free and fair elections since the downfall of strongman Suharto in 1998. Its multi-party electoral system, however, is costly for the state to run, and also costly for the various parties to contest. In 1999, 48 parties contested in the election; in 2004, 24 parties; and in 2009, 44. Things were a lot simpler and easier to finance during the 30 years under Suharto, when only three parties were allowed to run in elections that were geared to ensure victory for the ruling party.

After 2009, there was a consensus that Indonesia needed a simpler electoral system. The House of Representatives has since come up with a new electoral law, but it is difficult for newcomers to join. The Electoral Commission ruled that only 10 parties, including nine that already have representation in the House, qualified to contest in the national polls next year.

But the law does not address the important question of party financing, an important element for a democracy to work. It says only that parties can raise money from members and from individual and corporate donations. While campaign funds are subject to independent auditing, parties’ finances are not, except for the pittance of taxpayers’ money that they receive from the state.

With membership fees and donations unlikely to cover the huge cost of running a political party and its secretariat, many politicians have tripped as they used their power and influence to help raise money for their parties.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), an independent state agency which has been aggressive in going after the corruption within political parties, has focused its investigation on individual politicians, as if they and they alone are to blame for the corruption. All court convictions in these corruption cases have stopped with the individual politicians. Their respective parties have not only been spared, but are even prepared to sacrifice the implicated politicians.

Luthfi was replaced as president of the PKS — the country’s fourth largest party — the day after he was named a suspect in a corruption case regarding state procurement of beef imports from Australia. He has since also lost his seat in the House.

President Yudhoyono is coming under a lot of pressure from the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file to remove Chairman Anas Urbaningrum, as his name repeatedly came up in court testimonies over financial scandals involving other party seniors. They say the president’s reluctance to act is costing the party its public standing, and may jeopardize the party’s prospects for the 2014 polls. 

The party’s chief treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, has already been sentenced to seven years (raising the sentence from five) in jail for corruption, and he is determined not to go down alone. One prominent Democrat politician, Angelina Sondakh, has already been sentenced, and another, former minister of youth and sports Andi Alfian Mallarangeng, will soon be tried on charges of corruption over the construction of a huge sports complex near Jakarta.

Five of the six parties in Yudhoyono’s coalition government have felt the brunt of the KPK.

A Golkar senior politician was recently named in a court document of profiting from the government’s procurement of a special Quran; the chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Muhaimin Iskandar, has been named in several corruption cases within the Ministry of Labor and Resettlement, which he heads. Suryadharma Ali, the chairman of the United Development Party (PPP) and minister of religious affairs, is increasingly under the KPK spotlight as more cases of massive corruption within the ministry emerge. Minister of Agriculture Suswono, also from the PKS, will now have to answer questioning about his role in the allocation of a beef imports quota following Lutfhi’s arrest.

Even the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the main opposition party, has seen many of its top representatives convicted for corruption.

No one can accuse the KPK of playing favorites, but many are asking why the KPK has not sought to trace where all the graft money has gone. What happened to the money that Muhammad Nazaruddin and Angelina Sondakh raised? Is it sitting in their bank accounts, or was it transferred to their party’s treasures? Did they steal the money for themselves, or were they working to raise money for the party?

In the end, it may be just as well that the KPK has not pursued the investigation beyond the involvement of the individual politicians. The consequences of revealing the complicity of the political parties may just be too big of a problem for the nascent democracy to handle.

If the parties were found guilty of such massive corruption, the court system would be forced to shut them down. Indonesia may then be left with only a handful parties in 2014, which is not necessarily good for its democracy either. Outlawing these parties may raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the politicians who supported their entering the elections, including President Yudhoyono himself.

No one warned Indonesia that running a democracy would be this costly, and this complicated.

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