What local official arrests tell us about Indonesian political system

LONDON (The Jakarta Post/ANN) -  Decentralisation and democratisation have collectively exposed local governments to a novel concept of accountability, in which their actions continuously come under the scrutiny of their constituents.

Over the last few months, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has arrested at least 10 regional heads and legislature member, only to show that corruption still flourishes beyond public awareness. The arrests also imply that combating graft in the country is an arduous task, especially considering the House of Representatives’ inquiry which arguably is intended to weaken the KPK’s capacity and independence.

Between July and September 2017 alone, KPK has detained the Southeast Sulawesi governor, the regents of Klaten in Central Java, Pamekasan in East Java, Bengkalis in Riau and Batubara in North Sumatra, the mayors of Tegal in Central Java and Batu in East Java and a Banjarmasin legislature member. Most recently the KPK named suspect the regent of Kutai Kartanegara in East Kalimantan. The officials are all accused of abusing power, accepting bribes and misappropriating state money.

Almost 20 years after decentralisation, corruption, and abuse of power do not appear to diminish. Instead, the authoritarian and corrupt regime of the New Order has reincarnated in a more localized way.

Since the early 2000s, when decentralisation commenced, local officials have indulged greater powers in many aspects of policymaking, such as arranging and disbursing budgets, granting investment or mining permits and promoting staff. Concomitantly, in that period, the number of local actors convicted of budget misappropriation or power abuse has persistently on the rise. Regional autonomy seems to have decentralised acts of corruption.

There is a causal-mechanism to explain this phenomenon, which lies in the relationship between the uninterrupted autonomous power and the amount of resources managed by local authorities. Another variable is a lack of supervision by the central authorities, although this notion needs a separate and comprehensive elaboration.

The following few cases exemplify how after decentralisation local actors continue to overly exert their power and intentionally disregard the supremacy of the law. Abdullah Puteh (Aceh, 2001), Saleh Djasit (Riau, 2002), Ismeth Abdullah (Riau Islands, 2005), Barnabas Suebu (Papua, 2008), Ratu Atut Chosiyah (Banten, 2013), Annas Maamun (Riau, 2014), Gatot Pujo Nugroho (North Sumatera, 2015) are all governors who stood trial for graft.

In the lower level, Henry Boedoro (Kendal, 2003), Syaukani Hassan Rais (Kutai Kartanegara, 2004), Yusak Yaluwo (Boven Digoel, 2006), Mohtar Mohammad (Bekasi, 2009), Soemarmo Hadi (Semarang, 2011) and other local bureaucrats were imprisoned for embezzling state money. Many of them stole money which was supposed to be allocated for social or emergency purposes.

Quite interestingly, many local actors also committed corruption in policy areas, indicating entrenched maladministration and manipulation of formal structure of the local bureaucracy. For instance, during budget deliberation or authorisation, many rent seekers in the legislative and executive branches of power colluded. This practice occurred in Riau ( 2011 ), Semarang ( 2011 ), North Sumatra ( 2013 ) and Musi Banyuasin ( 2015 ).

This particular case displays at least three problematic issues. First, local executive power is dominated by personal political agenda. It is in line with a common understanding that a local leader is a position that owns unlimited discretionary authorities over local budget.

Second, the budgetary control function has been flawed with opportunistic and monetary motivated practices. It also means that local councilors have failed its institutional credibility.

Third, local bureaucrats have also been widely dragged into channeling politicians’ ambition to secure and maintain their power through illicit ways. This is one of the puzzling issues in Indonesia’s local governments as the bureaucrats were risking their positions if they did not compromise with the politicians’ instructions.

Abuse of power and corruption by local politicians and bureaucrats should give a cause for concern due to their direct impacts to citizens and potential to disrupt national stability. Corruption does not only lead to financial losses but also undermine the state’s credibility.

Through corruption, citizens have been consistently manipulated. Their contribution to state revenues through taxes and retributions has enriched officials and their cronies. Furthermore, the notion of autonomous local government that provides better services and builds closer and more trustful relationship with the public will lose its meaning and initial intentions.

Decentralised policymaking process has transformed into a transactional forum for local politicians and bureaucrats. This marks a circumstance, where predatory and informal networks do not only exist between public officials and society or private sector as evinced in vote-buying in local elections, kickbacks on procurement, or bribery in permit issuance.

More entrenched and more impactful the practice, it occurs and involves actors within public offices. The crime can even be more structured and controlled when established political clans control public institutions as familial ties help strengthen the informal networks on governance process and policymaking.

Of course, I have no intention to generalise corruption cases involving local government officials. Moreover, without disaggregating efforts to combat corruption at the national level, the public is now more engaged in the policymaking process or whistle-blowing mechanism.

Decentralisation and democratisation have collectively exposed local governments to a novel concept of accountability, in which their actions continuously come under the scrutiny of their constituents. Corruption and abuse of power might have manipulated constituents, but local officials who perpetrate the acts risk losing their credibility to govern.

(The writer is a PhD candidate at Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.)

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