E-KTP: Widodo’s biggest challenge yet

Indonesia is in the grim of a mega corruption scandal over the introduction of electronic identification cards. The puts President Joko Widodo on shaky ground following one of the country’s biggest ever thefts of public funds.

By Oliver Ward

The e-KTP corruption case represents the biggest challenge of Joko Widodo’s presidency. The case has already implicated 38 individuals, including several senior politicians. Once the investigations have been completed and leads followed up, it is likely to become ASEAN’s biggest graft scandal to date. Since 2009, an estimated US$170 million was embezzled and stolen and those accused include the Justice Minister and the Speaker of the lower house of Parliament.

The case is particularly damaging to President Joko Widodo. During his time as Governor of Jakarta he worked tirelessly to portray himself as a clean leader. He promised to be tough on the rampant corruption which plagued Indonesia’s politics. It was only with the backing of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) that he could make a bid for the presidency. These very people who helped him ascend to the presidency have now been proven to be involved in corruption and have the potential to destroy his reputation for political purity.

How can Widodo keep his name from being dragged through the mud?

As the e-KTP corruption quagmire threatens to engulf the Indonesian political elite, Joko Widodo will be concerned about his re-election prospects in 2019. A recent poll on Indonesian corruption perceptions undertaken by Transparency International saw the Indonesian people name the country’s parliament as the most corrupt institution. Joko needs to either stamp out the corruption blighting the system, or position himself as being exempt and above the muddy corruption quagmire. His 2019 chances depend on his reaction to the scandal.

His only saving grace is that Widodo himself has not personally been implicated. The graft supposedly occurred between 2009 and 2014. Joko Widodo also has the advantage of not being the leader of the PDIP. He may be able to take the public stance that he was forced to work with the party and with implicated individuals like Yasonna Laoly.

The case will also ask prominent questions of the KPK’s capabilities

The Indonesian anti-corruption force, the KPK, announced that it was following up a list of 38 implicated officials, but expected the number to grow to around 70 in the coming months. Although only two civil servants from the Ministry of Home Affairs are on trial, the case looks to be one of the most extensive corruption cases in the country’s history.

This begs the question of whether the KPK capable of dealing with a graft scandal of this magnitude. In 2013, an investigation into police corruption led to the KPK having to barricade themselves into their headquarters and call on public support for help after police demanded the arrest of investigators involved. In 2015, when the KPK attempted to bring charges against Budi Gunawan over some suspicious transactions, they were forced to back down. Several lead investigators were arrested and Gunawan was ultimately named the new police chief. The KPK was defeated.

For the KPK to succeed at reeling in the big fish they have caught in the e-KTP net, they will need Widodo’s help. This may be difficult to get. Adnan Husodo, from Indonesia Corruption Watch said, “The KPK wants to fight corruption, our politicians don’t.”

Jokowi may have no choice but to comply

The sheer size of the case and the time it will take to bring those involved to court, will put e-KTP in the headlines for the foreseeable future. The 2019 general election may even be fought with the issue of government corruption taking center stage. In this case Jokowi will want to make sure he has the upper hand.

The KPK has earned the public’s trust after securing more than 608 corruption convictions since it was formed in 2002. Joko Widodo learnt from the Gunawan crisis that failing to protect the KPK and their interests results in a drop in approval ratings. Since then he has protected the KPK from any parliamentary attempts to rescind the body’s powers, the most recent of which occurred in the 2015 parliament.

This time the KPK has a plan. The chairman, Agus Rahardjo wants to go after the smaller officials first to build public momentum and appetite for the case, then go after the bigger players in Indonesian politics. He is optimistic about the KPK’s chances, saying “if the President’s support remains strong, hopefully the attempts (to curb the KPK’s power) will fade”.

As senior politicians scramble to escape the KPK’s net, Widodo may find himself under serious pressure within his own party to bring the axe down on the KPK. He would be much better served to bring that axe down on the corrupt snakes that inhabit the poisonous snake pit of Indonesia’s parliament and demonstrate that the theft of public money will not be tolerated.