Indonesian President Joko Widodo will enter his second term next month under a black cloud over his support for a series of amendments to the 2002 Anti-Corruption Law. The revisions, passed on September 17, will undermine the effectiveness of the country’s independent graft-fighting agency and its endless war against official malfeasance.

Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) has taken aim at the much-admired Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) on several previous occasions but this time critics fear the worst with glaring headlines variously calling it the “death knell” and “the end.”

It is not a good start for Widodo, who will be officially inaugurated on October 20, three weeks after the current Parliament completes its five-year term and is replaced by the newly expanded 575-seat House, which was elected in April.

The law revision is not the only concern. The head of the new five-strong commission, which takes over in December, is former South Sumatra police chief Firli Bahuri, whom the KPK has previously accused of committing “gross ethical violations” when he was a commission investigator in 2017-18.

Reflecting a general lack of trust in Parliament, outgoing KPK chairman Agus Raharjo had warned Widodo that any weakening of the corruption eradication effort would send the wrong message to potential investors and hit already flagging economic growth.

KPK chairman Agus Raharjo with the KPK’s logo in the background in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Transparency International (TI), a corruption watchdog, found in a 2017 survey that bribes accounted for 10% of Indonesia’s production costs, with about 17% of the participants blaming the failure of their businesses on competitors paying officials for favors.

Saying they had been blindsided by the revival of the long-stalled revision, Raharjo and two other commissioners threatened to hand back their mandates to the president, but later elected to stay on for the remaining three months before their terms end.

The KPK questions why it has so far never been consulted by Parliament’s legal commission, or why the president’s promise to review the work of the country’s law enforcement agencies has only focused on the commission when the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) and the police have more to answer.

Even though the bill was not on the official legislation agenda, as it should have been, the president was the only figure who could have stopped its passage. Instead, he gave Parliament the go-ahead to rush through the legislation in the short time it has left.

“Now the decision is entirely in the hands of Jokowi (Widodo),” Tempo magazine said in a caustic editorial days before it passed. “He could save the KPK, or he could not. If he makes the second choice, we must dig a grave for the KPK – and also one for our trust in the president.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo waves at an ASEAN summit event at Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Indonesian President Joko Widodo waves at an ASEAN summit event at Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. Photo: Twitter

TI and more than 2,300 lecturers from 33 universities across Indonesia had rejected the draft law, with TI calling the KPK a “vital pillar” and noting that Indonesia has languished in the bottom third of its Corruption Perceptions Index for years.

Among a slew of other provisions, the amendment nullifies the independence of the KPK’s 1,000 employees, bringing them under the rules-laden umbrella of the civil service, and, more crucially, requires a supposedly independent supervisory board to sign off on all wiretaps, searches and seizures.

The blatant motive behind the wiretap revision is clear. Since it was formed in 2003, the KPK has used wiretaps to successfully bring graft convictions against 255 parliamentarians, six political party leaders and 27 ministers and state agency heads.

Politicians from Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and its coalition partner Golkar Party, the two biggest parties and the main backers of the amendments, have the highest number of offenders jailed for stealing from the public purse.

The revised legislation also stipulates that KPK investigators can only be recruited from the national police, despite a 2015 Constitution Court ruling which reinforced the KPK’s authority to appoint its own investigators from other civilian agencies.

Critics say police are unlikely to investigate their own colleagues in a force regarded as one of Indonesia’s most corrupt institutions, pointing to its failure to find the culprits behind the 2017 acid attack against KPK investigator Novel Baswedan.

Analysts point to the need for police to focus on other crimes and note that those who have been recruited in the past to the KPK investigation team often stay for only a short period before a promotion calls them back to service.

Moreover, the revised law compels the KPK to coordinate with the AGO, another agency with a checkered history, before it can proceed with a prosecution, and can only issue travel bans or block accounts during the investigation phase of a case.

Widodo did supposedly oppose the revision allowing for only police investigators, and claimed to be against another clause which requires the KPK to consult with the AGO on sentencing. He also said he wants the KPK to continue monitoring the wealth reports of government officials.

What the KPK will be able to do is terminate an investigation that has not been resolved within a year – something that will come as a relief to Joost Lino, former head of state-owned port operator PT Pelabuhan II, who has been a graft suspect for nearly four years.

Lino is one of several senior officials indicted for corruption, all based on business decisions which are alleged to have caused losses to the state – a questionable criteria for graft charges when there is no evidence of personal enrichment.

The Indonesia rupiah is near a 20-year low. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo
Stacks of Indonesian rupiah notes. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo

While many of the provisions are common practice in other countries, former KPK commissioners and other activists simply don’t believe that the integrity and the secrecy of the commission’s process can be protected when Indonesia’s rule of law is not nearly as strong.

In any event, most other anti-corruption bodies are solely responsible for deciding who and when to wiretap, the main weapon in corruption inquiries, while their supervisors map out strategy, conduct audits and field public complaints.

“The great strength of the KPK, which shocked the Indonesian elite, is that it has been able to keep that high level of integrity,” says one foreign anti-corruption expert. “There was a perception when it was formed that it would be as leaky as any other system.”

Independent analysts are puzzled why the president bought into the self-serving argument that the KPK is in need of disciplining when the only complaints about the work of the commission come from those who have been its main targets.

“The president has been misled by politicians,” says one retired KPK commissioner, who suspects Widodo’s support for the revised law may be in exchange for proposed changes to the leadership structure of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the nation’s highest legislative branch.

For all of the claims that it is too powerful, it is difficult to argue with the KPK’s almost perfect conviction record, a consistent 80% approval rating from the public and an average of 7,000 corruption tip-offs a year to its 24-hour secure hotline.

Widodo has complained in meetings that the KPK’s aggressive approach to its work is making officials afraid to make decisions and slowing down governance. Instead of focusing on investigations and prosecutions, he wants the KPK to spend more time on prevention.

Concentrating on that, the president believes, will help to systematically shut off the inventive ways in which politicians, jurists and state officials, who all fall under the KPK’s purview, can continue to plunder trillions of rupiah of public funds.

For now, however, he is a voice in the wilderness because of the secretive nature of the legislative process. When Widodo and his staff opened one newspaper this week leading on the KPK controversy, they were greeted by a black front page headlined: “Under the blanket of darkness.”

Editor’s Note: This story was revised from a previous version to reflect the September 17 passage by Parliament of amendments to the 2002 Anti-Corruption Law.