Jokowi (centre) waves to supporters. Photo by ahmad syauki on flickr.

Jokowi (centre) waves to supporters. Photo by ahmad syauki on flickr.

As Joko Widodo faces off against corruption scandals, cronies and rent-seekers, his presidency of promised reform is already at risk of descending into farce, writes Hamish McDonald.

Just over five years ago, Indonesians were transfixed by a political-legal brawl that came to be known as the “Crocodile versus Citcak” battle.

In this scenario, the little green-grey lizard that is a welcome household presence in a mosquito-ridden country, was the Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi or KPK).

Set up in 2002 in the wave of post-Suharto era reforms, it begun functioning in 2004 with the backing of a new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Soon it showed an unprecedented fearlessness, tackling the institutions that, according to opinion polls, Indonesians regarded as the most corrupt of all.

These were the parliament, the deal-brokering nest of the “crocodiles”, closely followed by the law courts and the agencies that fed them their cases, the police and the state prosecutors.

Over 2009, the crocodiles fought back against the KPK. Police arrested its chief commissioner, accusing him of ordering the execution of a businessman who was blackmailing the commissioner over an affair with his wife. The official got 18 years jail in a case many believe was a frame-up.

Then the police named two other KPK commissioners as suspects in a bribery case over a government purchase. But transcripts of intercepted phone calls then appeared, showing the case had been cooked up between senior officials in the Attorney-General’s Department and a police general.

Even so, it was only after large-scale public demonstrations in support of the KPK and an inquiry by respected lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, commissioned by President Yudhoyono, that the police and prosecutors dropped their attempted stitch-up.

The KPK went on to put the serving police general in jail, a first for Indonesia, and has since put numerous senior politicians and officials in the dock. As uncomfortable as this was for Yudhoyono, since many of those politicians were from his own coalition, he nevertheless stood by the KPK and its work.

Now, only four months into his term, the crocodiles are circling the new president, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), who also came to power promising a clean new style of governance.

Like Yudhoyono, Jokowi is burdened by the company he is forced to keep. In order to run for president last year, he had attached himself to the Sukarnoist secular nationalist party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president herself (2001-2004) and daughter of the country’s first president and independence leader, Sukarno.

As a result, Jokowi has felt obliged to accommodate several of her hoary old political menagerie in his government. Notably his defence minister is ex-general Ryacudu Riyamizard, infamous for praising the soldiers under his command who murdered the Papuan leader Theys Eluay in 2001.

In January, almost certainly at Megawati’s prompting, Jokowi named one of her personal friends and favourites, a police general named Budi Gunawan, as the sole candidate for parliamentary endorsement as the new chief of the National Police. This immediately turned into a crisis when the KPK named Budi as a corruption suspect because of millions of dollars of unaccounted-for wealth.

The police, supported by a noisy claque of PDI-P politicians including ministers in Jokowi’s cabinet, then turned on the KPK and its four commissioners. The chairman, Abraham Samad, was accused of breaching his oath of political impartiality by talking last year about running for vice-president alongside Jokowi, at whose instigation is not clear.

The police also arrested a deputy commissioner, Bambang Widjojanto, on perjury charges brought by a PDI-P politician in a case that had already been dismissed by a court. The arrest has forced him to stand aside from the KPK. A day later, a lawyer filed a police complaint case against another KPK deputy commissioner, Adnan Pandu Praja, over alleged mishandling of company shares in 2006. The fourth commissioner, Zulkarnain, may also face criminal investigation after a convicted embezzler accused him of bribery in 2008.

The barrage of criminal cases threatens to decapitate the anti-corruption commission.

Overwhelmingly, the Indonesian media sees no merit in any of the cases, only revenge by police at having one of their insiders fingered for alleged corruption.

The sense of Jokowi as an innocent surrounded by political reptiles increased last week on the president’s visit to neighbouring Malaysia took an astonishing turn.

Jokowi toured the factory of the Malaysian car manufacturer, Proton, a loss-making state white elephant set up under the contentious prime ministership of Mahathir Mohamad, who in political retirement became its chairman.

There Jokowi witnessed signing of an agreement for Proton to set up a joint-venture partnership in Indonesia to work towards production of an “Indonesian car”. It might start, Mahathir suggested, by importing fully made-up cars from Malaysia. This immediately brought to mind the “national car” project of Tommy Suharto, the late president’s son, which turned out to be just a South Korean car, fully imported.

The Indonesian partner in the deal is a company called Adiperkasa Citra Lestari, which is not known to Jakarta’s Ministry of Industry and has no known record of business. Its unique selling point, however, seems to be that its chairman is Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, who was there at the signing.

Hendropriyono as a government minister in 1999 helped organise the forced march of tens of thousands of East Timorese into Indonesia in a “protest” against the territory’s referendum vote for independence. In 2004 he was Megawati’s chief of the National Intelligence Agency when its operatives carried out the assassination of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Last year he resurfaced as a campaign advisor to Megawati and member of the panel forming Jokowi’s cabinet.

How Jokowi handles the KPK crisis, and fends off such rent-seeking as the car project, will be critical to whether his presidency moves forward on its main agenda of clean and effective government, or descends into a sorry farce.

Hamish McDonald is author of Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century and Jounralist-in-Residence at the Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific.