Indonesia’s Mr. Teflon finally in the dock
US Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into the US$173 million e-KTP corruption scandal could bring down embattled Parliament Speaker Setya Novanto
Parliament Speaker and Golkar Party chairman Setya Novanto is finally under arrest for his alleged role in one of Indonesia’s most egregious ever graft cases, but not before he found yet another way to try and avoid the long arm of the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK).
Looking pale and drawn, the powerful 62-year-old politician was taken into custody in his hospital room on Monday, four days after he was involved in what police insist was a genuine traffic accident.
What isn’t clear is whether he was heading for a television interview at the time of the November 16 crash or, as his lawyer claimed, he was on his way to give himself up to the KPK after eluding an arrest warrant for more than two days.
Draped in a corruption suspect’s distinctive orange jacket, he was wheeled out of hospital and into detention to await his trial as the central figure in the embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (US$173 million) from a Rp5.9 trillion electronic identity card (e-KTP) project.
Novanto, 62, who is said to have personally received US$42 million of the spoils from the rip-off, escaped the initial corruption charge in a controversial pre-trial ruling handed down by a South Jakarta District Court judge in September.
A month later, the KPK responded by issuing a second indictment using new evidence from a US Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into e-KTP contractor Johannes Marliem, 32, who shot himself after a nine-hour police stand-off in Los Angeles in August.
Marliem had previously enquired about seeking help from Indonesia’s Witness and Victim Protection Agency (LPSK), saying he had digital recordings of his dealings with some of the 37 politicians implicated in the scandal and was in fear of his life.
Novanto was reported to have suffered a minor head injury when the sports utility vehicle he was in ploughed head-on into a lamp post, although the driver and an aide seated in the front passenger seat were both unhurt and the vehicle was not badly damaged.
His lawyer claimed he was on his way to the KPK, but the driver, a Metro Television journalist who later found himself out of a job, told police he was taking him to an interview, which explains the westerly direction he was travelling.
The KPK office is a shorter ride northeast of Novanto’s home in the up-market South Jakarta suburb of Kebayoran that the KPK raided the previous night. He wasn’t home, but investigators collected a suitcase of documents.
Doctors thought the House Speaker’s high blood pressure was more of an issue than the slight concussion he supposedly sustained, while in a stream of derisory posts social media sceptics seemed to pay greater attention to the health of the lamp post.
After he was indicted the first time, Novanto was admitted to hospital with what were described as stress-related vertigo and heart problems that kept him out of the reach of KPK interrogators for the fortnight before the court ruling.
When a senior government minister visited him soon after the favorable verdict to suggest he might still consider resigning from his political posts, he was happily sitting up in bed, free of the oxygen mask and intravenous tubes shown in media pictures.
Novanto is no different from a long string of Indonesian political figures, starting with the late president Suharto himself, who have contrived to find every medical ailment imaginable to avoid or at least delay prosecution.
Suharto never did have his day in court, mainly because prosecutors would have had to put almost the entire political elite in the dock with him. But with broad public backing, the KPK has been out to show that those days are over.
After being implicated in four graft cases going back to 1999, anti-corruption campaigners insist the Teflon-coated Novanto will not escape the long arm of the law this time, despite the vagaries of the country’s judicial system.
Certainly, there are signs that his political allies, President Joko Widodo and maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan among them, appear to have decided he is now damaged goods.
But even now, under guard in hospital and with Parliament’s ethics council reluctantly considering his fate, he continues to protest his innocence and shows no inclination to withdraw from political life.
The vultures are already circling in Golkar, the country’s second largest party which Novanto joined in the early 1990s and which he has represented as a legislator for four terms in his climb up through the ranks.
Former Golkar chairman Akbar Tanjung, now vice-chairman of the council of patrons, and other senior leaders are growing concerned that the party’s chances in the 2019 legislative elections could suffer a severe blow if Novanto isn’t removed – sooner than later.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla, a past chairman and head of the party’s Sulawesi wing, has weighed in as well. “This kind of action will make people question everything,” he said. “How can a leader have such little dignity? Leaders have to obey the law and be trusted by the people, not run away like this.”
Golkar has garnered only 14% of the national vote in the past two elections and is in urgent need of a makeover anyway if it is to attract a share of the 85 million millennials who currently make up 47% of registered voters.
Calls are now growing, particularly from the party’s youth wing, for an extraordinary congress to replace Novanto. But what must worry Widodo is who his successor might be when he will be counting on Golkar to join any post-election coalition.
The president’s choice would be Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, but there are doubts about how much loyalty he commands among the rank-and-file and whether he has what it takes to unite a party that has split into at least four different factions.