This picture taken on July 6, 2020 shows Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo. Prabowo was arrested on November 25, 2020 over allegations of graft. (photo: Bambang Tri, AFP)

KPK’s Arrest of Edhy Prabowo

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KPK’s arrest of a prominent minister is promising for KPK but not for the accommodation between President Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto.

Last week,  KPK (the corruption eradication commission), Indonesia top anti-corruption agency, arrested the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Edhy Prabowo for allegedly receiving bribes for the release of lobster larvae export permits. This arrest shocked the political establishment. Edhy is not only a minister, but also the long-time aide and close confidant of Prabowo Subianto, an Indonesian strongman who chairs the Gerindra Party.

Three days later, KPK conducted another sting operation and arrested the mayor of Cimahi, Ajay Muhammad Priatna, on different charges. He allegedly received bribes in return for providing the license for the construction of a private hospital in his mayoralty. The public has warmly welcomed these arrests and KPK’s busy week.

It is still to early to say that these arrests mark KPK’s revival from the recent widespread criticism of relative inaction. The anti-corruption agency still needs to prove in the coming years that it is can be both the driving force and the role model for eradicating corruption in Indonesia. Last week’s arrest of Edhy was a brave move as this arrest targeted an allegedly corrupted person who was politically well-connected. This kind of arrest needs to be consistently repeated to consolidate a better reputation for KPK.

The anti-corruption agency still needs to prove in the coming years that it is can be both the driving force and the role model for eradicating corruption in Indonesia.

This is a tall order. Until recently, KPK was under heavy criticism from anti-graft activists for a range of alleged shortcomings:

  • Publicised sting operations are seen as key to boosting public awareness and confidence in KPK and deterring would-be corruptors. However, the KPK, during its current term that began in December 2019, performed few operations. In the first six months of 2020, KPK only conducted two successful sting operations. This compares poorly with the seven operations in the first half of 2019 and the thirteen in the first half of 2018.
  • KPK also faces criticism for a perceived political double standard: KPK arrested a senior Gerindra politician, while continuing to fail to capture Harun Masiku who has been on the run since January. Harun is from PDI-P, Indonesia’s largest party under which Joko Widodo won the presidential elections in 2014 and 2019.  Harun is accused of bribing a top election official to appoint him as the replacement of a national parliament legislator following the latter’s unexpected death. The election official, Wahyu Setiawan, has been convicted in this case and sentenced to six years in jail.
  • Anti-graft activists also worry that KPK face legal restrictions that unduly constrain them. Last year, President Joko Widodo and the national parliament passed a law that revised the 2002 KPK law. Critics contend that the amended law curbs KPK’s power and independence to investigate corruption cases. The new law makes it more difficult for KPK to execute sting operations, through the establishment of KPK Oversight Body which is responsible for authorising KPK’s wiretapping requests. This new body worsens the KPK’s bureaucracy, which could affect KPK’s speed and flexibility in pursuing corruption cases.

KPK needs to address these sources of scepticism by making more arrests based on the principles of impartiality, professionalism, transparency and independence which had been the hallmark of KPK. This includes the arrest of Harun Masiku.

While Edhy’s arrest helps assuage public concerns with KPK, it has created new political ones. An observer sees the arrest as a great insult and political blow to Prabowo Subianto.  KPK “was let” to arrest Prabowo Subianto’s sidekick, while at the same time, PDIP’s Harun is still on the loose. He implies that Prabowo, who is also defense minister in President Joko Widodo’s cabinet, could have been angered by this move. This argument sounds plausible. However, it is still unclear whether the “people in power” intentionally let KPK arrest Edhy Prabowo, or if it was KPK’s own initiative. Nevertheless, it looks like the arrest came as a surprise.

President Joko Widodo has expressed interest in Prabowo Subianto remaining in the cabinet, so that Gerindra’s power can be held in check. Gerindra has been supportive of the president, including helping to pass the controversial Omnibus Law. So, why would the president change the status quo? Whether this arrest damages relations between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto or not depends on the political accommodation that the president would offer to his former fierce political rival. Replacing Edhy Prabowo with another person from Gerindra could avoid any future political tension between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto.

The arrest of Edhy Prabowo clearly damages Gerindra. Prabowo Subianto has promoted anti-corruption narratives from time to time in various events, including in the presidential election debate in 2019 where he famously said: “I would arrest with my own hands Gerindra cadres who committed corruption and put them in jail.” Next week will tell whether this arrest will hurt the electability of the Gerindra’s candidates running for regional government positions in the nationwide elections on 9 December 2020.

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