Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has come under a fresh round of harassment in the middle of a presidential and legislative election campaign where fighting graft is not, and never has been, a real issue.

In fact, the politicians who could make it an issue are among the worst culprits and have been in a losing battle with civil society activists and overwhelming public opinion for years in trying to find ways to water down the commission’s powers.

Despite the KPK’s fourth change of leadership since its founding in 2003, opinion polls show it remains the country’s most trusted institution.

Graft watchdog Transparency International listed Parliament as Indonesia’s most corrupt institution in 2017, a title it richly deserved last year after its speaker, former Golkar Party leader Setya Novanto, was jailed for 15 years for masterminding a US$173 million electronic identity card scam.

Over 90% of incumbent parliamentarians are seeking re-election to the expanded 575-seat House of Representatives (DPR), mostly in their old seats, while a third of upper house Regional Representative Council (DPD) members are vying for a turn in the lower house.

Jakarta, Indonesia, 16 December 2015 : Hundreds of People from several independent organization in Indonesia hel demonstration in front of Indonesian House of Representative  as a parliamentary committee was just hours away from ruling that the Golkar Party politician and leader of the countryís House of Representatives had flouted ethics rules when he tried to elicit billions of dollars worth in kickbacks from Freeport McMoranís Indonesian subsidiary. SETYA NOVANTO resigned from his post after the demonstration without further hearing the decision mada the parliamentary committee. (Photo by Donal Husni/NurPhoto)
An anti-corruption protest against Setya Novanto in a December 2015 file photo: Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Donal Husni

President Joko Widodo and opposition rival Prabowo Subianto may have clean records, but they have paid only lip service to stemming a seemingly endless problem that continues to cost the country billions of dollars a year and shows no signs of abating.

Widodo is taking heat from the Prabowo camp, however, over the failure of the police to solve the April 2017 acid attack on KPK chief investigator Novel Baswedan, 41, who was blinded in one eye and only returned to his duties a year last year after multiple surgeries.

Two motorcycle-borne attackers threw a vial of hydrochloric acid in Baswedan’s face as he was returning home from morning prayers; despite a public outcry police have been either unable or unwilling to conduct even routine detective work.

The former police officer is a cousin of Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, who was supported by Prabowo’s Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) in his controversial 2012 victory over incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Purnama.

Unlike the military, the national police reports directly to the president, which puts Widodo directly in the firing line. Only now – and under election season pressure – has police chief Tito Karnavian formed a 65-strong team to supposedly delve deeper into the case.

People wear masks of  Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) investigator Novel Baswedan's face to show their support for him after suffering a debilitating acid attack, Jakarta, February 22, 2018. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP Forum/Eko Siswono Toyudho
People wear masks of KPK investigator Novel Baswedan’s face to show support after he suffered a debilitating acid attack, Jakarta, February 22, 2018. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP Forum/Eko Siswono Toyudho

His hand has also been forced by the KPK’s latest travails, which began earlier this month when a bag containing what was said to be a pipe bomb was found hanging on a fence at the west Jakarta residence of KPK chairman Agus Rahardjo.

About the same time, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the house of KPK deputy chairman Laode Syarif in the south Jakarta suburb of Kalibata without causing any damage but sending an unmistakable message of intimidation that has become all too familiar.

“It is a dangerous job,” Syarif said in an interview last August with the University of Sydney alumni magazine. “It affects my life a lot, not just for myself but my family and even my mother. My sons, when they go to school, must be accompanied by police officers every day.”

Last July, in what has become a regular occurrence, a KPK investigator found his car scarred with hydrochloric acid and its tires slashed after receiving a series of telephoned death threats in apparent connection with a case he was working on.

The police and KPK have been at loggerheads because of past probes into corrupt generals whose relatively modest salaries bely the grossly inflated bank accounts they hold as revealed by the watchdog Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center.

Indonesia's new National Police chief General Tito Karnavian speaks witht he media after his inauguration at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia July 13, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside  - RTSHOX7
Police chief General Tito Karnavian, Jakarta, July 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

“Total Failure,” headlined Koran Tempo daily in a front-page story last week as Karnavian announced the formation of the new investigation team into the acid attack, which includes Detachment 88 counter-terrorism officers and several ex-KPK investigators.

The police chief is a former head of Detachment 88, the elite 1,000-man unit which has played the leading role in arresting more than a 1,000 Islamic militants across the country over the past 15 years, but has rarely been used for other duties.

International Corruption Watch (ICW) and other activist groups have accused the police of obstructing the investigations, despite claims the police have found fingerprints on the devices used in the latest pipe bomb and Molotov cocktail incidents.

Novel has said Widodo should be doing more to push the police into reacting to the violent and increasingly overt backlash against the KPK. “If the president is afraid of uncovering the truth, then I am very sad,” he told reporters last year.

“There must be no impunity for the powerful,” Transparency International chairman Jose Ugaz warned last year. “President Widodo must speak out and take actions that ensure the KPK is safe from intimidation. Lawmakers must not be allowed to weaken its powers or dodge its investigations.”

Embezzlement and kick-back allegations in the House of Representatives have rocked Indonesia's political establishment, presenting President Joko Widodo with a political dilemma ahead of general elections in 2019. Photo: Reuters
A money changer counts rupiah bank notes in a file photo. Photo: Reuters

In fact, Parliament has blithely joined the campaign to undermine the work of the commission, including a failed attempt to deprive the KPK of the ability to covertly wire-tap suspects, perhaps the most important tool in its armory.

The pressure on the KPK has increased in direct proportion to its achievements in jailing a total of 547 politicians, bureaucrats and jurists since the commission was formed.

But for all of the claims that the graft-fighting body is becoming too powerful, politicians can’t readily argue with an almost 100% conviction rate, a consistent 80% approval rating and an average of 7,000 corruption tip-offs a year to its 24-hour secure hotline.