Sukhoi-gate puts Megawati in the line of fire

It comes as no surprise that Indonesian legislators are crying foul over the government’s decision to buy Russian fighter jets.

The controversy, dubbed ‘Sukhoi-gate’, underscores a battle brewing at the subterranean level of politics in Indonesia, where President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s rivals are grasping for whatever ammunition they can get to destroy her credibility ahead of the elections next year.

A putsch against her is unlikely at this stage but with so many of her enemies coming into alignment against her, Ms Megawati will be in for a rough ride.

At the heart of Sukhoi-gate is Jakarta’s purchase of four Sukhoi jets, two SU-20 and two SU-27 bombers and two MI-35 helicopters during the President’s trip to Russia last month.

Critics insist the US$192-million (S$334-million) deal violated defence and budgetary laws and banking procedures. Most arms-procurement deals in Indonesia have to go through the Defence Department for approval before being submitted to the Finance Ministry and Parliament for budgeting.

But according to air force generals, the deal went through without any scrutiny, forcing Parliament to set up a special team to investigate the purchase for ‘irregularities’.

The uproar has little to do with transparency or the high moral ground of fighting corruption. It has everything to do with getting a share of the pie and identifying points of vulnerability to attack Ms Megawati’s image.

It is common knowledge that the generals get a significant cut of the commission for any procurement contract that is signed. This time around, they did not get a cent from the mark-up that defence contractors here estimated at US$10 million.

A large chunk of that, some argue, has reportedly been funnelled to the coffers of Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

This explains also the vitriol of politicians who are trying their best to make a quick buck from securing bonds, tenders and projects to fund an all-important election campaign.

Legislators argue privately that the Sukhoi deal will only allow the PDI-P to bolster its elections treasure chest at the expense of other parties, which have been on the losing end of the money trail since Ms Megawati took power.

Her husband, Mr Taufik Kiemas, has been vital to efforts to rake in funds given his connections to several business leaders in the country.

Despite attempts by Golkar and several Islamic parties, it is unlikely that the latest scandal will bring down the presidency.

The past 12 months have seen several ‘gates’ being opened but leading nowhere. First, there was the Banpres-gate, which referred to the use of off-budget funds under the Megawati administration for political purposes.

Then, there was the uproar over the sale of state-owned telecommunications provider Indosat to Singapore Technologies Telemedia. PDI-P was also accused of siphoning off part of the origination fees for the sale.

But this is all hot air in a silly season in Indonesian politics before the big show next year. Still, Ms Megawati must watch her step.

The fodder is growing. Sukhoi-gate is another stab at her image and standing, which are on the wane.

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