Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Indonesia, Plague of Corruption Rises Anew ; Financing Scandals Taint Political Parties as National Elections Loom

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Indonesia, Plague of Corruption Rises Anew ; Financing Scandals Taint Political Parties as National Elections Loom

Article excerpt

Despite their democratic turn, Indonesian political parties are increasingly financing their operations through the same official corruption that symbolized the Suharto era.

Fifteen years ago, Indonesia took its first step toward democracy with the ouster of Suharto, the late authoritarian president. By the 2009 national elections, the country had one of the most open electoral systems in Asia, with direct ballots for president all the way down to district chiefs and mayors.

Political parties and elections cost money, however, especially in a sprawling archipelago nation of 240 million. As Indonesia's democratic governance expanded, so did the need for airplane flights to rallies, local party offices, advertising, pollsters and consultants -- not to mention the box lunches and T-shirts that are expected by the masses who turn up at campaign events.

But the country's campaign-finance laws have not kept up with these changes, analysts say. As a result, Indonesian political parties are increasingly financing their operations through the same official corruption that symbolized the Suharto era.

"That's not a secret anymore," said T. Mulya Lubis, chairman of the executive board of Transparency International Indonesia. "It's public knowledge. This is the biggest kind of corruption now."

The most recent in a series of political scandals involves the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party, or P.K.S., the fourth- largest party in the House of Representatives and a member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's governing coalition. The party has been under fire since its chairman was arrested in January over allegations of accepting bribes in exchange for securing additional government quotas for a company that imports beef.

In the past month, other P.K.S. leaders have been implicated in the case, accused of orchestrating a payoff of more than $1 million intended for the party's 2014 legislative election campaign. Among them is Agriculture Minister Suswono, whose ministry allocates quotas to beef-import companies and who has been questioned by the independent Corruption Eradication Commission.

Separately, a corruption suspect has asserted that the P.K.S. planned to exploit its control of the ministries of Agriculture, Communications and Information Technology, and Social Affairs to amass a campaign war chest of 2 trillion rupiah, or $204 million. P.K.S. officials have denied those allegations as well as any party involvement in corruption.

Yet the scandal, dubbed "Beef-gate," has prompted calls for Mr. Yudhoyono's government and the legislature to enact sweeping campaign-finance overhauls before national elections next year. Proposals include public disclosure of political parties' expenditures and sources of income, limits on campaign spending, creating a new agency or reappointing the National Election Commission to exercise oversight, and prosecuting party officials for violations.

Titi Anggraeni, executive director of the Association for Elections and Democracy, a nongovernmental organization, said that current law requires that parties disclose donations, income and expenditures only in a single report endorsed by their own auditor, rather than make public their actual accounts. As a result, she said, it is easy to hide illegal contributions and income and the spending that results from both.

"We have free and fair elections in Indonesia, but not free and fair competition," she said. "Candidates use money as a shortcut to win elections."

Under current law, political parties may collect revenue only from member dues, capped donations from individuals and companies, and state subsidies for winning seats in the national and provincial legislatures.

However, Ms. Anggraeni said her organization's research found that these forms of legal income cover less than 15 percent of operating expenses for political parties, which, for example, must maintain offices in all 34 of Indonesia's provinces and in two- thirds of its 491 incorporated provincial districts in order to compete in elections. …

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