Unraveling corruption in Indonesia

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made eradicating corruption one of the cornerstones of his administration. Widely regarded as the only figure capable of making a dent in the culture of sleaze, the former Army general was elected to Indonesia’s top job in 2004 primarily for this reason. He was re-elected in 2009 for appearing to ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made eradicating corruption one of the cornerstones of his administration. Widely regarded as the only figure capable of making a dent in the culture of sleaze, the former Army general was elected to Indonesia's top job in 2004 primarily for this reason. He was re-elected in 2009 for appearing to make significant progress in this very area.

Lately, however, many in the country are questioning his commitment to the anti-graft campaign. Those concerns have to do with his evasiveness when it comes to the corruption investigations under way against people within his own inner circle.

Currently, the special anti-corruption court is hearing the case of Muhammad Nazaruddin, the chief treasurer of the Democratic Party (PD), which has been Yudhoyono's prime political vehicle in both his election campaigns. As the trial proceeds, however, it has become clear that Nazaruddin (in the center of the photo above, to the left of the guy with the mustache) is not going down alone. He has named other senior party figures as accomplices in the crime he is accused of: specifically, using the party's position and influence to secure lucrative contracts for the construction of sports facilities in Palembang, South Sumatra, and then distributing the profits among party members.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made eradicating corruption one of the cornerstones of his administration. Widely regarded as the only figure capable of making a dent in the culture of sleaze, the former Army general was elected to Indonesia’s top job in 2004 primarily for this reason. He was re-elected in 2009 for appearing to make significant progress in this very area.

Lately, however, many in the country are questioning his commitment to the anti-graft campaign. Those concerns have to do with his evasiveness when it comes to the corruption investigations under way against people within his own inner circle.

Currently, the special anti-corruption court is hearing the case of Muhammad Nazaruddin, the chief treasurer of the Democratic Party (PD), which has been Yudhoyono’s prime political vehicle in both his election campaigns. As the trial proceeds, however, it has become clear that Nazaruddin (in the center of the photo above, to the left of the guy with the mustache) is not going down alone. He has named other senior party figures as accomplices in the crime he is accused of: specifically, using the party’s position and influence to secure lucrative contracts for the construction of sports facilities in Palembang, South Sumatra, and then distributing the profits among party members.

Nazaruddin, whose job was raising funds for the party, has already named PD chairman Anas Urbaningrum and Andi Mallarangeng, currently minister for youth and sports in Yudhoyono’s cabinet, among his co-conspirators. Although both men have denied the accusations, Nazaruddin’s claims have severely dented the party’s image and reputation, and they could undermine its chances of winning the next parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2014. Prior to the scandal, Urbaningrum and Mallarangeng had both been mentioned as possible presidential candidates for 2014.

Founded in 2003 specifically to support Yudhoyono’s election bid, the Democratic Party became the largest political party after the 2009 elections. It now controls 26 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. Working in Indonesia’s multiparty political system, Yudhoyono has formed a coalition with four other parties in the current administration.

Although Yudhoyono is barred by the constitution from running for a third consecutive term in 2014, he remains the party’s central figure. It is he who makes all the important decisions. So far he has kept his intentions for 2014 — particularly on the question of whom he would like to see on the Democratic Party presidential ticket — close to his chest.

Regardless of whether they are ever substantiated, the corruption allegations have virtually torpedoed any chance for Urbaningrum and Mallarangeng to be considered for the job. Pundits are placing their bets on either First Lady Ani Yudhoyono or her younger brother, current Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pramono Edhie Wibowo.

As Indonesia’s first directly elected president, Yudhoyono is a man who endlessly polishes his image both at home and abroad. He watches the opinion polls closely and reacts to any changes. He has made it one of his goals to lift Indonesia’s rating in the corruption-perception index issued by the Berlin-based Transparency International. He wants to raise Indonesia’s score from 3 (as it was last year) to 5 by the end of his administration in 2014. (The higher the rating, the less corrupt the country is perceived to be.)

Indonesia’s 2011 ranking put it at 100 out of 183 countries surveyed. While this left Indonesia in the bottom half of the table, it still represented an improvement over the period, not that long ago, when it rated as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Indonesians are so skeptical about the country’s anti-corruption campaign that, when their country finally moved up from the bottom of the rankings, many jokingly wondered how much the government had to pay off Transparency International for the privilege.

Much of the progress Indonesia has made in fighting off corruption happened on Yudhoyono’s watch.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which he helped found shortly after coming to office in 2004, was specifically tasked to deal with corruption cases at the highest levels of government. Over the years, the commission has succeeded in sending to jail army and police generals, senior judges and prosecutors, former cabinet ministers, central bank officials, governors and mayors, ambassadors, and senior politicians.

So successful has the KPK been in prosecuting big time bribe-takers that many of its early supporters, including the government and the House of Representatives (Parliament), now count among its most vocal critics. Following Nazaruddin’s allegations in court, it is only a matter of time before the KPK opens its own investigations of Urbaningrum and Mallarangeng.

With the elections just two years away, these accusations are damaging the party’s public standing. They’re also affecting the reputation of its central figure, President Yudhoyono. One would have thought that the president would his use power to remove these two men from their current positions to stanch the political bloodletting.

He obviously has other plans in mind for 2014. The saga continues.

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