A woman holds behind her back a stack of Indonesian rupiah banknotes. Photo: Twitter

Indonesia’s Parliament, widely considered the country’s most corrupt institution, is up to its old tricks again in shamelessly trying to defang the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), the state agency surveys show Indonesians trust most.

Seven of the 10 political parties who hold seats in the 560-seat House of Representatives are behind a damaging revision to the 2002 KPK Law, despite opposition from the three remaining parties, anti-graft activists and civil society at large.

They are seeking to justify the changes through an official inquiry into the KPK’s activities led by three-term Golkar politician Agun Gunandjar Sudarsa who, like many of the legislators on the inquiry panel, is currently under investigation in a US$173 million biometric identity card scandal.

The inquiry is seeking to withdraw the KPK’s prosecutorial powers in an opening gambit that would render the agency impotent and leave the anti-graft campaign solely in the hands of the police and Attorney-General’s Office (AGO), whose reputations are less than squeaky clean.

By far the most egregious graft case to be brought against Parliament since the birth of the democratic era in 1998, funds from the identity card conspiracy allegedly flowed to at least 37 lawmakers to smooth the budget’s passage through Parliament in 2010.

Indonesia’s House Speaker and Golkar party leader Setya Novanto shakes hands with his party’s chairman Aburizal Bakrie in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Rosa Panggabean

Among those implicated is current House Speaker and Golkar Party chairman Setya Novanto, a key ally of President Joko Widodo, whose conviction would throw the country’s second largest party into disarray in the lead up to the 2019 election season.

According to palace sources, when a senior administration official called on the KPK last month to inquire about Novanto’s possible indictment, he was effectively told: Don’t think he’s going to get off the hook this time.

It was a reference to past cases, dating back to the Bank Bali scandal in the late 1990s, where the seemingly Teflon-coated Novanto managed to elude prosecution.

Other beneficiaries included all but one of the political parties, 12 senior Home Affairs Ministry officials and a complex web of lawyers and brokers who facilitated the massive plundering of the national purse.

Last April, in what seemed to be an unmistakable message, motorcycle-borne assailants threw acid over chief KPK investigator Novel Baswaden, brother of newly-elected Jakarta governor Anies Baswaden, as he walked home from his suburban mosque.

KPK senior investigator Novel Baswadan on his way to an eye hospital for treatment for an acid attack by an unidentified assailant, in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 11, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Aprillio Akbar

Novel is undergoing intensive treatment in a Singapore hospital for burns to his head and damage to both eyes, but police still haven’t tracked down the assailants or learned who may have hired them.

The attack came only a fortnight after court testimony revealed that nearly half of the 5.9 trillion rupiah (US$443 million) budgeted for the identity card project had been set aside as a slush fund long before it was put up for tender.

In a demonstration of the barefaced gall for which Parliament has become notorious, Sudarsa’s inquiry team is even trying to force the KPK to release the transcript of key witness testimony in the case.

Critics want Widodo to condemn what they call an inappropriate use of legislative power, but his reluctance to do so clearly stems from the fact that his own Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) supports changes to the KPK law.

Novanto, for his part, was instrumental in bringing Golkar into the coalition after the 2014 election when the victorious Widodo was struggling to make headway with a minority government.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Since the first two cases in 2007, the KPK has successfully prosecuted 127 national and regional legislators, a remarkable feat given the influence of a political elite which continues to act as if it has a popular mandate to steal.

Indeed, attempts to weaken the commission have grown in direct proportion to its achievements in bringing corruption charges against a total of 643 politicians, bureaucrats and judges over the 13 years it has been functioning.

“The KPK is accused of being a super body and not accountable to anyone,” says anti-corruption campaigner Natalia Soebagjo. “But that’s simply not true. When the commissioners are summoned to Parliament, they always show up. All this is fabricated.”

A final draft of the latest KPK Law revision has yet to be made public, but past versions have contained four crucial amendments that if implemented will undermine the KPK’s power and independence.

The most notable of those is the creation of an additional supervisory body which would have to give prior approval for wiretaps. That, say critics, would not only be time-consuming but present a risk of the surveillance being leaked to a potential target.

Activists and supporters of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) hold a rally in a file photo. Reuters/Darren Whiteside 

The KPK currently has its own strict internal mechanisms to ensure that proper procedures are followed, something that has worked effectively up to now and which would be made redundant by the new revision.

The proposed legislation also would permit the KPK to issue a formal letter terminating an investigation if it feels there is insufficient evidence, a power that now only rests with the police and AGO prosecutors.

In some instances that’s a good thing, shown in the case of Richard Joost Lino, former head of the state-run port authority who has still not been prosecuted 18 months after being indicted for causing losses to the state – a charge that in itself is problematic.

In a nation notorious for endemic corruption, Lino’s fate underlines the danger that exists when well-meaning senior officials, of which he is widely considered to be one, cut bureaucratic corners just to get things done.

Although Lino’s passport has been returned, he remains in legal limbo because of a well-intentioned regulation that is not only designed to prevent bribery but also to ensure the KPK steps carefully before opening an investigation.

Richard Joost Lino, former president director of a state-owned port authority, stands accused of causing state losses. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry  

More controversially, a fourth amendment requires the KPK to choose investigators from, or recommended by, the police or the AGO, rather than from its own pool of widely deemed as competent and trustworthy officials.

That doesn’t go down well with reformists, given the propensity for corruption in both institutions – and a long history of them collaborating with politicians and bureaucrats to weaken the KPK.

Counted among those opponents is Novel Baswaden himself, a former police officer whose fierce criticism of the force he once served has put him at odds with at least two of the five commissioners, one of them a high-ranking policewoman.

When KPK chairman Agus Raharjo recently sought to issue a new rule making it mandatory for the head of the commission’s investigative arm to be an active police colonel or hold an equivalent position in the AGO, Baswaden responded with a harshly-worded letter that infuriated the police.

There is a feeling in some quarters that may have triggered the subsequent acid attack. But given the political stakes involved – and Parliament’s tawdry reputation — most critics are convinced it more likely stemmed from the identity card corruption investigation.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.