Indonesian parliament speaker Setya Novanto, is escorted from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) building in Jakarta, Indonesia November 21, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Wahyu Putro
Indonesian parliament speaker Setya Novanto, is escorted from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) building in Jakarta, Indonesia November 21, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Wahyu Putro

As Golkar party chairman and speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives, Setya Novanto clearly knows where all the skeletons lie.

Apart from being a primary source of largesse, he is also known to be very personable. “Everyone likes him,” says one veteran politician with the Golkar party, a member of President Joko Widodo’s ruling coalition. “There’s no emotional issue here because he doesn’t have any enemies.”

Put those elements together and it is little wonder that despite being indicted for a second time in the embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (US$173 million) from a 5.9 trillion rupiah electronic identity card (e-KTP) project, the 62-year-old politician is refusing to voluntarily step down.

In fact, he may be trying to emulate previous Golkar chairman, Akbar Tanjung, one of the senior party figures now calling for his removal who clung on as party chairman and House speaker for nearly two years from 2002-2004 until the Supreme Court finally overturned his graft conviction.

Novanto has already filed a second pre-trial motion with the South Jakarta District Court seeking to have the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) indictment dismissed before it even gets to the courtroom, a tactic he employed successfully last September.

Indonesia's Speaker of the House Setya Novanto, identified as a suspect in a corruption case, arrives at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) building in Jakarta, Indonesia November 19, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken  November 19, 2017.  Antara Foto/ Rosa Panggabean / via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.
Indonesia’s Speaker of the House Setya Novanto arrives at the Corruption Eradication Commission building in Jakarta, November 19, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/ Rosa Panggabean

Now clearly desperate, he is also trying to head off the naming of a new speaker – tipped to be Golkar’s parliamentary leader, Bambang Soesatyo — by threatening to reveal a lot more about Indonesia’s most egregious corruption case than is so far known. What else he can disclose is unclear with so much already out in the open.

The KPK has already implicated 37 politicians, with witness testimony showing that nine of the 10 parties holding seats in Parliament benefited to some degree from the illegal windfall.

Whatever the outcome of the standoff, it is unlikely to have any immediate impact on Widodo’s ruling coalition, of which Golkar is a key pillar, as Indonesia prepares for regional and national elections over the next 16 months.

Senior party sources say new interim leader Idrus Marham, 55, a one-time academic and Golkar’s former secretary general who remained notably loyal to Novanto up until his November 19 arrest, is expected to maintain the second largest party’s support for Widodo.

Although it dragged on for nine hours, a central board meeting held two days after Novanto’s arrest merely endorsed an instruction the party chairman issued some months ago appointing Marham and deputy secretary general Yahya Zaini to share the chairman’s duties if Novanto was indicted.

The alleged personal beneficiary of US$42 million of the spoils, Novanto escaped the initial corruption charge in a controversial pre-trial ruling handed down by a district court judge that experts complained was full of legal holes.

A woman holds behind her back a stack of Indonesian rupiah banknotes. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
A woman holds behind her back a stack of Indonesian rupiah banknotes. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

But the KPK responded by issuing a second indictment a month later, using new evidence from a US Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into e-KTP contractor Johannes Marliem, 32, who shot himself after a police standoff in Los Angeles last August.

Given the previous controversy, analysts find it difficult to believe the same pre-trial tactic will work again given the expected public outcry and harm it could do to Indonesia’s image abroad at a time investors are looking for more legal certainty.

Some Golkar party faithful appear to be caught between their loyalty to the likeable Novanto and the likely harmful effect the case will have on next year’s June 27 regional elections and on the unprecedented simultaneous legislative and presidential elections 10 months later.

Involving 115 districts and 39 municipalities in 17 of the country’s 34 provinces, including populous West, Central and East Java and North and South Sumatra, the regional elections will be an important bellwether for the national polls.

The same sources say Widodo is on board with Marham’s appointment, although his first choice if a party congress eventually meets to decide on a permanent chairman would be Airlangga Hartarto, the industry minister in his ruling six-party coalition.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) stands with Vice President Yusuf Kalla after a ceremony inaugurating them in a new parliament in Jakarta, on October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) stands with Vice President Yusuf Kalla of the Golkar Party on October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Hartarto, 55, a previous member of Golkar’s Agung Laksono-led faction, may not however have sufficient support among the rank and file, despite the promise of him being a breath of fresh air in a party that has only won 14% of the vote in the past two national elections.

Golkar executive chairman Nurdin Halid, who manages the party’s day-to-day affairs and was often seen to have the inside track as Novanto’s successor, has ruled himself out of the running by declaring his candidacy for next year’s South Sulawesi gubernatorial elections.

Halid, 59, would not have been a popular choice anyway because of a string of past corruption cases against him. His reputation as an enforcer has caused resentment in party ranks, as it did when he was head of the graft-ridden Football Association of Indonesia, which he ran from jail in the early 2000s.

Deputy secretary general Zaini, 53, has a past he would no doubt prefer to forget as well. In 2006, he achieved notoriety by appearing on an Internet video in a naked tryst with a raunchy dangdut singer. Zaini resigned from his party positions amid the furor, but later made a comeback.

After being implicated in four graft cases dating 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.

The speaker of Indonesia's parliament, Setya Novanto, leaves an ethics panel hearing in Jakarta, Indonesia in this December 7, 2015 file photo. Indonesia's house speaker resigned on Wednesday in a letter to a parliamentary council charged with determining whether he had committed ethical violations in a meeting with executives from Freeport McMoran Inc's local unit. House Speaker Novanto has been at the centre of a probe into allegations he used President Joko Widodo's name in an effort to extort shares worth $1.8 billion in Freeport Indonesia.  Picture taken December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Garry Lotulung        TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1YYFU
Parliament speaker Setya Novanto leaves an ethics panel hearing in Jakarta on December 7, 2015  Photo: Reuters/Garry Lotulung 

For all the points Novanto and then-chief presidential adviser, Luhut Panjaitan, earned for bringing Golkar into the newly-elected leader’s minority coalition in 2014, Widodo clearly decided after Novanto’s first indictment that he is now a political liability.

He isn’t alone. Former Golkar party boss Tanjung, now vice-chairman of its council of patrons who rescued the all-powerful ruling party from collapse after then president Suharto resigned in 1998, has grown increasingly concerned about the impact the Novanto case is having on Golkar’s electoral chances.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla, a past chairman himself 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.”

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) founder Jusuf Wanandi, who helped transform Golkar from an alliance of non-government organizations into Suharto’s powerful political machine, says there is no room for sentimentality – and that there is no question Novanto must go.

“I hope Golkar can reform itself and give the young generation the opportunity to lead,” he told an elite audience at a dinner celebrating his 80th birthday on Wednesday. “Politics founded on transactions will not succeed, as we see happening in Golkar today.”