Corruption in Indonesian political campaigns was one of the highlights of the first presidential debate on “law, human rights, corruption and terrorism” in January. Viewers who were hoping the candidates would make some groundbreaking proposals to mitigate corruption in the election were doubtless disappointed.

Despite questions from the moderator about how to limit abuse given the high cost of campaigning, neither of the candidates – Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto – offered any concrete proposals. Instead, both candidates made vague suggestions, such as improving coordination among law enforcement institutions, simplifying the recruitment system within political parties, and increasing the salaries of state officials.

Rather than speaking in generalities, the candidates should adopt three specific proposals. First, they should support legislation that would impose strict limits on the amount of money a candidate can spend in a presidential election. Second, they should support legislation that would require public disclosure of all campaign-related expenditures. Finally, they should support strict enforcement, and harsh penalties for violations, of these requirements.

A long-standing problem

The Indonesian government should have anticipated the risk that elections will be tainted by corruption – and taken effective action – a long time ago. There is ample evidence that prior elections have been affected by corruption. For example, Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) discovered at least nine corruption cases related to the campaign fund by politicians, mayors and regents (see Table 5). Similarly, in the 2018 regional election, the Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) found that some candidates had not provided a thorough and complete report regarding the amount of their donations and expenditures.

Despite these allegations, neither political parties nor candidates were penalized for violating campaign financing rules. In part, this was because of the poor quality of documentation and low transparency in financial reporting that prevented proper auditing by the General Elections Commission (KPU) of political parties’ campaign funds.

This problem is not limited to Indonesia. Corruption in political campaigns happens in many countries. For instance, there have been allegations of illegal money in the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in the UK.

Excessive spending

The first action that must be taken is to reduce the amount of money spent on presidential campaigns. The financial burden of campaign spending can be a significant cause of graft in Indonesia. Campaign rallies and advertising are expensive. Because of the high cost, campaign financing is extremely vulnerable to corruption according to the chief of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), Agus Rahardjo. KPK has recommended a government financing mechanism for political campaigns to prevent corrupt practices such as money in politics and trading in influence. But proposals like this have never received the serious attention they deserve.

Even though laws impose a limit on donations by individuals and entities, there is no regulation that limits overall campaign spending. Candidates can be expected to spend their resources as much as possible to win the election. This can extend to paying off voters at dawn on election day, a dirty practice known as “dawn attack” (serangan fajar).

Transparency in campaign funds

To the extent that candidates and their supporters are allowed to spend money on political campaigns, transparency in campaign financing is critical to ensure the integrity and fairness of the democratic process. Disclosure requirements are regulated under Law No 7 of 2017 on general elections. The KPU has a role in supervising the use of campaign funds under Law No 17 of 2013, which requires political parties and candidates to report an initial campaign fund to the KPU. The law also sets limits on contributions to a presidential candidate from individuals and from groups. According to laws imposed last year, the candidate must disclose the identity of donors by providing clear information and tax return as a report to prevent dark-money donors.

Despite these laws, enforcement of sanctions in campaign financing is lacking. In some past elections, political parties and candidates failed to provide a complete report about their donors. This opens an opportunity for prospective candidates to sell their agendas by making a secret deal with individual or business entities. It is not surprising that campaign donations have become a political investment for individuals to influence future political outcomes.

This year’s presidential election could help Indonesia improve its Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which last year improved from 89 to 96 according to Transparency International. With the election just a couple of weeks away, KPU and Bawaslu should carefully monitor and supervise the campaign expenditures of political candidates and parties. Further, KPU and Bawaslu should induce political parties and candidates to improve the quality of campaign fund records and reporting.

To sum up the situation, as the late California politician Jesse Unruh observed, Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Even though there is no such a low-cost avenue on the national elections, Indonesia perhaps could find a better way to reduce election costs.