Can Megawati win war on corruption?

By daring to fight corruption in Indonesia, is President Megawati Sukarnoputri drinking from the poisoned chalice?

It depends on who answers. Unusual boldness these last few weeks against New Order cronies for graft might have boosted the credentials of her administration internationally.

But back home, reaction has been mixed, with some quarters opposing her moves defiantly.

The anti-corruption sweep may have unleashed more battles at the subterranean level in Indonesia. The reverberations will far outlive the court trials of the next few months.

This raises doubts as to whether Ms Megawati can last out her term until 2004, and whether there is going to be any economic recovery. Ironically, putting to dock some of Indonesia’s most prominent personalities was motivated by an economic agenda – appeasing foreign-aid donors.

The Paris Club of creditor nations meets next month to consider whether to reschedule some US$5 billion (S$9 billion) in debt owed by Jakarta. The government is obviously trying to win international approval by tackling head on an endemic cultural mindset.

For the first time in Indonesian legal history, severe punishment is being meted out to those found guilty of corruption.

Take the case of the former president of the now-defunct BHS Bank, Hendra Rahardja. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. His son Eko Edi Putranto and bank official Sherny Konjongian were also put behind bars for 20 years. That might be enough to force donor countries crying for reform in Indonesia to sit up and take notice.

But charges of show trials aside, the sight of former president Suharto’s youngest son Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra, central bank governor Sjahril Sabirin and Parliamentary Speaker Akbar Tandjung all in the docks does suggest an ideological shift has taken place in Asia’s most corrupt nation.

Detaining Golkar chairman Akbar, in particular, was a sweet victory for Ms Megawati and her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

They not only cut the political lifeline of an arch-rival, but also shattered any illusions that Golkar might have had of winning the 2004 election.

Some might question the efficacy of such a strategy, given that Golkar, as the second-largest faction in Parliament with 120 seats, has been a critical coalition partner of the PDI-P. And it was Golkar that played a pivotal role in engineering Ms Megawati’s rise to power last July.

Will the besieged New Order relic give her the same level of support? Unlikely.

Golkar might be torn apart by factionalism – one group, made up mainly of younger members, is openly resistant to the PDI-P, while another appears more moderate. Whatever their respective political posturing, there does appear to be a broad agreement between the two factions not to give the President an easy ride for the next two years.

Instead of pulling together for the sake of trying to solve the country’s problems, there will be a hardening of positions, with the middle ground disappearing.

Golkar plans to back the government’s unpopular policy of further fuel and electricity price hikes, but not because it serves Indonesia’s interests best. The aim is to create a crisis of confidence in the administration.

There might also be a deliberate attempt by Golkar to stall constitutional amendments to electoral laws that could threaten to delay scheduled polls in 2004.

Golkar’s fallout with the PDI-P alters the constellation of forces in Parliament.

The critical piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the Muslim axis. Nearly all the Muslim parties – the United Development Party, National Mandate Party, Crescent Star Party and the Nation Awakening Party – are facing internal splits.

The fluid alliances that will emerge in the run-up to 2004 will be even more complex.

Given Golkar’s stronger Islamic orientation, it is likely a large number of its members will gravitate towards the Muslim parties in a face-off with the PDI-P.

For the Muslim parties, the anti-corruption drive and attempts to resuscitate the economy will be used as a yardstick to measure the current administration’s success.

Given the prevailing uncertainty in Indonesia, the economy remains in a fragile condition and vulnerable to external shocks.

More importantly, there does not appear to be any signs of fresh foreign capital coming into the country.

Investor confidence – even if the economic indicators turn positive – continues to be dictated by concerns over a corrupt judiciary and the ‘hidden costs’ of doing business in Indonesia.

An equally-important consideration is growing Islamic militancy and a general breakdown of law and order. While Indonesians are generally moderate, CNN footage of Islamic radicals in white robes and armed with knives does little to improve the nation’s public image.

The government’s offensive against graft might help Indonesia’s image, even if there are nagging doubts about its motives for doing so.

Can the President slay that demon called corruption that has been all pervasive in Indonesian culture for the last 30 years?

Not for another generation or two, and not when her own family members, too, stand accused of it.

The anti-corruption drive in Indonesia today has a political subtext.

For the 54-year-old leader and her advisers, it is nothing but a series of political executions to emasculate their rivals, by allowing the courts to do their bidding.

Crystal-ball gazing is dangerous in Indonesia. But some things can be seen with a degree of accuracy. Her fight against graft has opened up a can of worms that might come back to haunt her domestically, even if she wins international approval.

The question everyone asks, of course, is whether she will survive this.

As it stands, her Islamic and military power brokers do not want to step into the fray. Poisoned chalice or not, she will last out her term by default.


The anti-corruption sweep may have unleashed more battles at the subterranean level in Indonesia. The reverberations will far outlive the court trials of the next few months.


Ms Megawati’s (right) fight against graft has opened up a can of worms that might come back to haunt her domestically, even if she wins international approval.

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