Presided over by President Joko Widodo and televised nationwide, the solemn palace ceremony to swear in Indonesia’s fifth Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) was, for many anti-graft activists, a worrying departure from its previous four inaugurations.

This time, in addition to the five new commission members, the president installed a five-man supervisory council, a group of minders who will have to sign off on all seizures, arrest warrants and phone taps in the course of any KPK investigation.

That, say critics, will deal a serious blow to the independence and therefore the effectiveness of the popular graft-fighting body, slowing down its work and opening up the possibility of leaks that could stop a corruption case in its tracks.

The new supervisory council’s creation was included in amendments made to the 2002 KPK Law, which were rushed through the previous House of Representatives during its final sitting last September, despite widespread protests from a newly-resurgent student movement.

According to one source familiar with the situation, the president’s aides were still looking for candidates two days before the inauguration. “No-one wanted to be on the council because the spirit of Law No 19/2019 is totally against the KPK,” said the source.

With a stream of parliamentarians going to prison over the past 15 years for various acts of malfeasance, Parliament had tried several times to rein in the commission, particularly over its ability to wiretap phones without outside supervision.

President Joko Widodo on a call. Photo: Pinterest
Indonesian President Joko Widodo takes a phone call. Photo: Pinterest

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

The eventual passage of the revised law was greeted with widespread dismay and alarmist headlines that variously referred to the “death knell” and “end” of the nation’s seemingly ceaseless war on corruption. That feeling of foreboding has not faded since.

Held up in its previous unregulated form as a global role model, the KPK has prosecuted 608 suspects and claims to have saved the country 63.8 trillion rupiah (US$4.52 billion) in potential losses in the past four years alone.

Well aware of criticism over his role in pushing for more bureaucratic oversight, Widodo hand-picked all five of the KPK’s new supervisors.

Among them is retired prosecutor Tumpak Hatorangan Panggabean, 76, who served as acting KPK chairman from 2009-2010 and now heads the new supervisory council.

Former Supreme Court judge Artidjo Alkostar, 71, two-term Constitutional Court justice Harjono, 71, West Timor High Court judge Albertina Ho, 60, and Institute of Sciences senior researcher Syamsuddin Haris, 57, will join him.

New KPK supervisor Artidjo Alkostar taking questions from the media in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

To the new crew’s credit, Alkostar has a reputation for rejecting the appeals of convicted corruptors, while Ho earned her spurs as the presiding judge in the high-profile bribery case of tax official Gayus Tambunan, who was jailed in 2011.

At one point, Widodo floated the idea of issuing a government regulation in lieu of law (PERPPU) that would have either revoked the new law, amended some of its provisions or delayed its enactment. But most analysts now believe that was only designed to tamp down public unrest.

The PERPPU would have had to be issued straight after the law took effect on October 16, marking 30 days since its passage. But that never happened and PDI-P, Widodo’s own party, said it would be “disrespecting” Parliament if he did.

Even a face-to-face plea by more than 40 leading civil society figures, including the rectors of the country’s top universities, failed to move the president. A subsequent appeal for a judicial review before the Constitution Court, meanwhile, has little chance of success.

“If the fight against corruption is to be effective, it has to be done in a different environment from that of other law enforcement agencies,” says anti-graft activist Natalia Soebagio, a former member of the international board of Berlin-based Transparency International, a global graft watchdog.

The amended law nullifies the independence of the KPK’s 1,000 employees, bringing them under the rules-laden umbrella of the civil service. “The president thinks internal controls are important, but that means the KPK is no different from the police or the Attorney-General’s Office,” says Soebagio.

Indeed, the KPK is now compelled to coordinate with the AGO, another agency with a checkered history, before it can proceed with any prosecution. Also, it can only issue travel bans or block bank accounts during the investigation phase of a case.

An Indonesian artist paints a protest board at a demonstration against the KPK Law revision in Banda Aceh on September 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

Ironically, while there has been little criticism of the individual supervisors, concern has centered on the new commission chairman, former South Sumatra police chief Firli Bahuri, 56, whom the KPK accused of “gross ethical violations” when he was a graft investigator in 2017-2018.

The other commissioners include lawyer Lili Siregar, 52, formerly with the Witness and Victim Protection Agency, Nawai Pomolango, 57, a Jakarta Corruption Court judge, Nurul Ghufron, 45, dean of a Sumatran university law faculty, and ex-judge Alexander Marwata, 52, the only member retained from the previous commission.

With Bahuri at the helm, critics say the KPK is likely to steer a wide berth around the police, pointing to the force’s failure so far to find the mastermind behind the 2017 acid attack against leading KPK investigator Novel Baswedan, himself a former policeman.

The revised KPK legislation also now stipulates that its investigators can only be recruited from police ranks, despite a 2015 Constitution Court ruling which gave the KPK authority to appoint its own investigators from other agencies.

Often regarded as Indonesia’s most corrupt organization, the police have been at loggerheads with the KPK going back to the early days of the Widodo presidency in 2015, when the commission sought to indict powerful deputy police chief Budi Gunawan on corruption charges.

A former adjutant and close associate of PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, Gunawan, 60, avoided prosecution and since 2016 has been director of the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) and a central figure in the country’s internal security apparatus.