Corruption in Indonesia and the 2014 Elections

Indonesia has experienced a historic and unprecedented transformation to democracy in the 15 years since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. It will hold legislative elections in April 2014 and its third direct presidential elections in mid-July. The campaigns for and results of these polls will focus on a range of issues, from economic growth to institutional reform to human rights concerns. But one topic sure to play a prominent role will be the continued pervasiveness of corruption at all levels of society.

Q1: What is the level of corruption in Indonesia?

Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 174 countries and territories according to their level of corruption as perceived by surveys of both domestic and foreign observers. The 2012 index found that Indonesia was perceived as more corrupt than a year earlier, dropping from 100th to 118th place (a lower ranking indicates greater corruption), despite high-profile efforts to address the problem.

Transparency International followed this report with its 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, which polled individuals in 107 countries about their direct experience of corruption. The majority of Indonesians reported that corruption had “increased a lot” in the last year, with vast majorities describing the police (91 percent), legislature (89 percent), judiciary (86 percent), political parties (86 percent), and public officials and civil servants (79 percent) as corrupt. More than a third of Indonesians reported that they or someone in their household had paid a bribe in the last 12 months, including two thirds of those who had contact with the judiciary and three quarters of those who had contact with the police. On the latter metric, Indonesia is on par with the likes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Q2: What has Jakarta done to curb corruption?

Indonesia in 2002 established an independent agency dedicated to combatting corruption. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has spent the last decade investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption cases. It has been meticulous in its approach to targeting perpetrators and has consequently maintained a 100 percent conviction rate. Unfortunately, this commitment to perfection also means the KPK has snagged only a tiny fraction of those elites engaged in gross corruption. And its successes, while lauded by the public, have also pulled back the curtain on the prevalence of corruption at the highest echelons of the state.

The KPK arrested Akil Mochtar, chief justice of the Constitutional Court, on October 2 on charges that he accepted bribes to fix a case regarding a local election dispute. The court had previously been seen by many Indonesians as the only other transparent and reliable government institution in the country besides the KPK. In addition to Akil, the KPK has in the last year arrested a former youth and sports minister, a former police inspector general, and the brother of the governor of one of Indonesia’s largest provinces, among many others.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected in 2004 and again in 2009 on promises of fighting corruption, especially by working with and offering support for the KPK. In the early years of his presidency, and the KPK’s existence, the commission targeted high level congressmen, diplomats, and legislative commissioners. Just as elections approached in 2009, Yudhoyono’s son’s father-in-law, a member of the president’s Democrat Party and a former central bank governor, was arrested and sentenced to four and a half years in prison for embezzlement. The arrest helped Yudhoyono brand himself as a “no exceptions” anti-corruption president.

But support for KPK cases has been a less prominent part of Yudhoyono’s second term, and opponents argue that he has grown soft on corruption as his party has been devastated by high-profile convictions. Dadang Trisasongko, head of Transparency International in Indonesia, said, "Yudhoyono has an anti-corruption policy but he has only provided very weak political support for it.”

Q3: What role will the question of corruption play in Indonesia’s 2014 elections?

The KPK has become an established and arguably untouchable institution, but it is only one small front in a much larger fight against corruption. The commission’s own work has revealed just how inadequate it is to the scale of Indonesia’s corruption problem, and the need for greater focus from Jakarta will be a central issue in the 2014 elections.

A3: Some 67 million first-time voters will participate in the 2014 elections, comprising roughly one third of the electorate. This is a new generation of voters, empowered, informed about the issues, and raised in the post-Suharto era. They will expect to hold a new president responsible for picking up where Yudhoyono’s first term left off. These voters, who have taken to social media platforms in droves to express outrage over Akil’s wrongdoing, are the nation’s swing voters.

They are not beholden to the powerhouse parties, Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). This is unsurprising given the widespread belief that political parties are as corrupt as Indonesia’s other institutions. Nor are they enamored of the traditional elites, like former president and PDI-P head Megawati Sukarnoputri, or the declared candidates—Golkar’s Aburizal Bakrie, a nearly-billionaire tycoon, or the Great Indonesia Movement party’s Prabowo Subianto, a former general.

Instead, the electorate seems eager to “throw the bums out” and replace them with a younger and presumably cleaner, generation of leaders. At the forefront of this next generation is Jakarta governor and political superstar Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi. At 52, he is relatively young, and has a charismatic, pavement-pounding style that is new to Indonesian politics. As mayor of Surakarta, he proved an effective, pragmatic, and, most importantly, clean leader.

Unsurprisingly, Jokowi has dominated presidential opinion polls for months, leading the second-place Prabowo by double-digits. And he is not even officially running yet. As a member of PDI-P, Jokowi has played coy, insisting that any decisions about his party’s candidate lie with Megawati. Whether the former president will step aside is unknown but seems increasingly possible. But even if Jokowi is not lifted to the highest office, the wave of support for him is unprecedented and indicates that the corrupt old guard will either have to change or step aside. Either way, 2014 could prove a watershed for Indonesian efforts to develop a cleaner, more effective democracy.

Gregory Poling is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Blake Day is a researcher with the CSIS Sumitro Chair.

Critical Questions
is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Blake Day