Indonesia's fight against corruption

Indonesia has had ongoing problems with corruption since it established democracy in 1998, and while some recent high profile cases have been exposed, Dirk Tomsa says there are problems at every level of government.

In late 2015, the speaker of Indonesia’s parliament Setya Novanto resigned in a corruption scandal, after the release of a leaked recording in which he tried to extort shares from the mining company Freeport.

Freeport was negotiating for a renewal of its contract for the biggest mine in Indonesia. Novanto was allegedly recorded boasting about his close relationship to President Joko Widodo, and tried to extort a 20 per cent stake in the mine.

“This is one of the biggest corruption scandals in Indonesia in recent years,” says Dr Dirk Tomsa, a senior lecturer in La Trobe University’s Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy. “Setya Novanto is one of the most powerful politicians in the country and had a history of controversial involvement in other scandals, but he always escaped prosecution.”

While high profile, this corruption scandal isn’t unique in Indonesian politics. Tomsa says corruption can be found at every level of Indonesian government, including the local level. While it is notable that Novanto has resigned, Tomsa believes criminal charges are unlikely.

“There’s no indication that this will be followed up despite all the evidence, and it’s a reflection of what I examined at the local level. It all comes down to the resources you have to buy yourself out.”


Tomsa points to Indonesia’s corruption problem originating long before the establishment of democracy in 1998. When President Suharto’s military-dominated government transitioned to a conventional democracy, much of Indonesia’s politics were decentralised to the provincial and district levels, giving local officials new powers and resources.

“These positions were often occupied by the same people who held them during Suharto’s authoritarian regime,” says Tomsa. “They had more powers than they knew how to handle, and any existing corrupt practices just carried over.”

The problem has only gotten worse as the initial euphoria for change has abated. While there is increasing public pressure in Jakarta to deal with corruption in the Indonesian political system, prosecution at the local level often occurs in a seemingly arbitrary manner.

“The long arm of the law doesn’t always reach the areas that are far away from Jakarta, and there is little capacity to deal with the problems at the provincial or district level, especially in the outer islands of Indonesia,” says Tomsa.

“The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is trying to work effectively at the local level, but lacks the resources or organisational influence. Most of the cases that have actually been addressed happened primarily through links to the national level.”

If measured only by the conviction rate, the KPK’s anti-corruption efforts over the last ten years appear to have been remarkably successful, but the sheer number of cases exposed indicates corruption levels have hardly been reduced. To make things worse, both parliament as well as the national police recently moved against the KPK to further restrict its powers and weaken it.

Given the constant stream of new cases, frequent tensions with national political institutions, and its own limited resources, the KPK often has to leave the local level to its own devices. The most scrutiny local politicians face is during election cycles in the form of smear campaigns from rival candidates. Tomsa believes this is not effective at getting at the root of the problem.

“Anyone uncovering the corruption of a political rival are likely corrupt themselves and just better at concealing it,” he says. “Local prosecutors are usually ineffective, as they are either too inert, too incompetent, or too corrupt to initiate and complete an investigation.”

“In Kendari, for example, the local Attorney General has been so inactive that even a judge at the local anti-corruption court expressed surprise at the low number of cases brought to court.”


The public desire in Indonesia for a political system free of corruption has had one notable outcome, with the 2014 election victory of Joko Widodo, a man with limited political experience from outside Jakarta’s political elite. His campaign promoted him as a man of the people, and his victory in the presidential election was seen as a step away from the entrenched corruption in Indonesia.

“Widodo’s election as a president reflects the public’s desire for a saviour to clean up the system,” says Tomsa. “While it gives Indonesia hope, it’s also problematic. He can’t do much without broader institutional and structural changes, and more than likely he’ll disappoint the people, and become overburdened with massive expectations.”

Tomsa believes that one step towards a solution could lie in reorganising the responsibilities of local executives and providing alternative opportunities for political parties to generate income. Relying on the KPK alone to uncover and prosecute corruption is of limited effectiveness.

“The problem in Indonesia is systemic,” he says. “The prospects for fighting corruption at the local level are grim if all the fight is relying on is local elites exposing the wrongdoings of political rivals.”