Indonesia has lost its way on corruption and freedom

Indonesia has lost its way on corruption and freedom

Rizal Ramli served as Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs under President Joko Widodo between 2015 and 2016. He previously served as minister of finance and coordinating minister for the economy.

When Suharto resigned as Indonesia’s president in May 1998 after more than three decades of authoritarian rule, celebrations erupted.

Massive protests had preceded his resignation, touched off in part by built-up frustrations and anger over the corruption and unfettered greed of his family and inner circle of political loyalists and capitalist cronies. Only much later did Indonesians learn the actual scale of the corruption which occurred under Suharto.

With the dictator gone and far-reaching political reforms starting, leaders of the anti-Suharto movement, including myself, were optimistic that Indonesia could be transformed into a modern democracy.

For many years after that, successive presidents including Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the most part managed to steer the country in the right direction.

At one point, Indonesia was even touted as having made one of the most successful democratic transitions in modern times and as a shining example for the rest of the Muslim world. For Indonesians, who had gained the ability to choose their president and legislators, openly express their opinions and get information from a newly vibrant and free press, it was the best of times.

Now, 25 years after the fall of Suharto, Indonesians find themselves in the worst of times. Incumbent President Joko Widodo, his cabinet and the House of Representatives have together delivered devastating blows to the country’s democracy, methodically undermining its institutions and norms to the point where Indonesia more closely resembles a semi-authoritarian state than a democratic one.

A prime example of this democratic backsliding is the recently overhauled criminal code under which the government can now file a complaint against a person alleged to have dishonored the president, vice president, the legislature or the judiciary. This crime is punishable by a jail sentence of up to three years. As one human rights activist commented, “This is a giant leap backward and off the cliff.”

Another troubling aspect of the Widodo administration has been its extraordinarily poor track record in combating corruption.

Indonesia’s score fell by a record amount on the most recent annual update of Transparency International’s widely followed Corruption Perceptions Index, bringing the country nearly all the way back to its 2012 rating.

J. Danang Widoyoko, secretary-general of the group’s local branch, said the drop “demonstrated the failure of the Indonesian government’s strategies and programs to control corruption.”

University students raise white sheets of paper during a protest in Jakarta after a new criminal code that bans insulting the president was passed in December 2022.   © Reuters

Many scandals have erupted around the country’s savings and loan cooperatives. In the case of one that collapsed swallowing 1 trillion rupiah ($67.9 million) in savings, two Supreme Court justices have been arrested for allegedly taking bribes to favor a businessman involved with the cooperative.

Bigger cases loom. Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Mohammad Mahfud recently told lawmakers that around 500 officials from the tax, customs and excise offices are suspected of involvement in laundering 349 trillion rupiah over the past decade, based on an analysis of gold imports by the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center.

Instead of expressing outrage and demanding criminal investigations, some members of the Indonesian House of Representatives have attacked Mahfud and accused him of illegally releasing state secrets.

Such unsavory behavior is not a surprise. After all, the House has a long track record of scandals involving corruption. In 2019, it passed a bill curtailing the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission.

Widodo signed that bill into law, underscoring his inexcusable record on fighting corruption. His silence about the gold laundering scandal is yet another glaring example of how his poor leadership has paved the way for a serious lack of public accountability and caused damaging losses to the state.

Given his handling of past scandals involving his cabinet and coalition partners, there is scant reason to believe Widodo will demand criminal investigations into those purportedly involved in this latest case. Not much will change until Indonesians choose a new president early next year — if then.

With a fresh crop of candidates starting to jostle for support to become Widodo’s successor, it is vital that the public demand that those who want to stand for the presidency make clear how they will take up the fight against corruption and what they will do to better protect democracy and freedom. 

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