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Money politics

Gabriel DomínguezFebruary 27, 2014

As Indonesia prepares to elect a new parliament and president in the coming months, DW examines how political graft is undermining the Southeast Asian country's democratic and economic achievements of the past decade.

An Acehnese resident casts his vote into the ballot box in local elections in Aceh, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, 09 April 2012.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Many analysts regard Indonesia's accomplishments after the overthrow of longstanding authoritarian ruler Suharto in 1998 as remarkable. The world's largest Muslim democracy with more than 250 million people has not only managed to expand its economy at an average rate of 5.5 percent over the past decade. It has also undertaken "one of the most ambitious institutional reform programs attempted anywhere," by rapidly decentralizing power, creating a constitutional court and a powerful anti-corruption commission, according to the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI).

By the time the term of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ends this year, the country "will have witnessed its first 10-year stretch of both democracy and stability," says Sandra Hamid, The Asia Foundation's Country Representative in Indonesia.

Money politics

But despite the many achievements, experts say Indonesia is still in a state of transition to a mature democracy which may be threatened by the rampant corruption that has been plaguing the country over the past years. The Southeast Asian nation ranked 114th out of 177 countries in Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perception Index, with number one being perceived as the least corrupt.

"With very little influence and a thin base of supporters, it is public knowledge that a number of political parties and candidates running for office have resorted to money politics to secure votes," says Hamid.

The analyst explains that rather than running on fresh ideas and campaigning strategically, many competing parties have chosen to entertain voters with live music, free t-shirts, and even offering money. "More than 35 percent of voters confessed that they, or their families, had experienced vote buying," Hamid said.

"And when vote-buying alone isn't enough to secure votes, funds have been directed to the judiciary," she added, referring to the arrest of the former chief justice of the Constitutional Court.

A pervasive practice?

In early February, Akil Mochtar went on trial on charges of corruption and money laundering. Prosecutors accused the former judge of having received 57 billion rupiah (4.8 million USD) in bribe money in exchange for fixing the results of 11 local elections.

The hands of two people hands exchanging money
Hamid: "A number of parties and candidates running for office have resorted to money politics to secure votes"Image: Fotolia/Natalia D.

According to Djohermansyah Djohan, director general of regional autonomy at the Home Affairs Ministry, more than half of 524 local leaders in the Southeast Asian nation have been embroiled in corruption cases.

The official told state news agency Antara that the number of governors, district chiefs and mayors arrested for corruption had increased sharply since the introduction of direct elections for governors, district chiefs and mayors nine years ago.

Crucial elections

In light of this development, there are growing fears that the level of political corruption might soar, as the country prepares to elect a new parliament and a successor to President Yudhoyono in the coming months.

In a statement on its website, NDI points out that with no clear presidential front-runner and a higher parliamentary threshold for parties to enter the national legislature, the elections could be the most closely contested in the nation's history. In view of this, the organization adds, "incentives remain for electoral manipulation and vote-buying that have not been adequately addressed."

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono attends the first session of ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at the state guest house in Tokyo, Japan, 14 December 2013.
The successor to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is set to be elected on July 9Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Indonesia has raised the bar for participating in the elections over the past years. This has resulted in the number of political parties eligible to contest dropping from 48 in 1999 to currently 12. On April 9, some 190 million Indonesians will have a chance to elect their legislators to more than 19,000 seats at national, provincial and district level from these dozen political parties.

The results of this vote will be crucial for the presidential election, set to be held exactly three months later on July 9, as only parties that win at least 20 percent of the vote in the legislative polls are allowed to nominate a presidential candidate.

Dodgy dealings

Indonesia expert Hamid explains that the generally weak ties between parties and constituents make it hard for political parties to raise funds from its members. Although regulations on party financing exist, putting them in practice and advocating for transparency have been the biggest challenge to date, the analyst told DW.

Several studies have begun to shed light on the intricate relationship between political fund raising and corrupt practices of parties when they come to power. Ibrahim Fahmy, program director at Transparency International Indonesia, gives an example of how this works.

"Some big corporations lobby members of parliament who then accept bribes in exchange for granting projects." In other cases, he adds, some political parties will backup politically affiliated contractors and then embezzle funds to finance big events such as national political party congresses.

A chance to 'clean up'

Given these dodgy dealings Hamid argues that voters are seeking candidates in the upcoming polls who are serious about fighting graft. "Newly elected officials will have to show that they are committed to assisting the widely supported anti-corruption agency, KPK."

An Acehnese woman casts her vote into a ballot box at the polling station in Kahju village, Aceh before the voting begun in Banda Aceh, 09 April 2009. Voting has begun in Indonesia parliementary election with 38 national and six local parties in Aceh. Aceh is the only one province in In Indonesia wich have a local parties for the parliementary election in Indonesia. The outcome of the eleection will determine wich parties can field presidential candidates for the july election.
Analysts say that especially young voters want to elect candidates on promises to clean up the systemImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Gregory Poling, Southeast Asia expert at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has a similar view. He says that although vote-buying is likely to play a role in the upcoming elections, so will the demand for relatively clean politicians vowing to battle corruption once in office.

"Corruption is a prominent part of politics in Indonesia, but an increasingly young, savvy, and democratic populace is getting fed up, and will elect candidates on promises to clean up the system," Poling said.