Indonesia's former House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto in a wheelchair before a hearing on his corruption charge. Photo: Andalou via AFP/ Eko Siswono Toyudho
Indonesia's former House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto in a wheelchair before a hearing on his corruption charge. Photo: Andalou via AFP/ Eko Siswono Toyudho

Billed as Indonesia’s ‘trial of the century’, the formal arraignment on December 13 of Golkar Party chairman and former House of Representatives speaker Setya Novanto paves the way for a leadership change in Indonesia’s oldest and most influential party ahead of what promises to be a bitterly fought 2018-19 election season.

Within hours of a sickly looking Novanto’s appearance before the Jakarta Corruption Court, Golkar’s central board chose industry minister Airlangga Hartarto to replace him, although the appointment must still be approved by a special party congress next week.

Golkar is in urgent need of a makeover, barely budging off 14% of the national vote in the last two legislative elections and still led by many of the same old faces who were around when it was president Suharto’s unbeatable political machine.

Hartarto, 55, the Australian-educated son of a former Suharto Cabinet minister, has the firm support of president Joko Widodo, whose influence appears to have been decisive despite him being a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P).

Analysts don’t rule out Widodo jumping ship if PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri continues pushing him to select either her daughter, chief social affairs minister Puan Maharani, or National Intelligence Agency director Budi Gunawan as his 2019 running mate.

Former speaker of parliament Setya Novanto as he arrives at the Corruption Eradication Commission building in Jakarta, July 14, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Hafidz Mubarak 

Novanto is charged with engineering the embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (US$172 million) from a 5.9 trillion rupiah electronic identity card project, known as e-KTP, in a case that has left the 560-seat Parliament a target of public scorn.

The veteran legislator quietly resigned from his parliamentary post a week before his arraignment invalidated his second pre-trial motion seeking to bring a premature end to the Anti-Corruption Commission’s (KPK) investigation into the scandal, which has also implicated scores of other past and serving politicians.

Novanto was a compromise choice to end a damaging leadership conflict between failed presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie and previous House Speaker Agung Laksono, which simmered all through 2015 and into 2016 when Golkar formally joined the ruling coalition.

As part of the Laksono faction, Hartarto had been expected to overcome any serious opposition with vice president Jusuf Kalla and former party chairman Akbar Tanjung both supporting his candidacy and Bakrie himself distracted by problems with his business empire.

Novanto’s first indictment was scrapped by a district court judge on tenuous legal grounds last September, but the KPK has since gathered new evidence, including incriminating tapes provided by an E-KTP vendor who shot himself in Los Angeles last August.

The vendor’s death came four months after chief KPK investigator Novel Baswedan, 40, a former police major and a cousin of new Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, was partly blinded in an acid attack in North Jakarta which remains unsolved.

Novel Baswedan, a prominent Indonesian corruption investigator, as he gets treatment at a hospital in Jakarta for an acid attack, April 11, 2017. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Police

“We have the evidence to show how it all unfolded, from the budget process, to the meetings and to the flow of funds to the parties involved,” said a KPK spokesman, putting a cap on an inquiry that could send Novanto to jail for 20 years.

The 62-year-old politician may also face money-laundering charges related to the funds he is alleged to have taken himself, and is under scrutiny as well for understating his net worth in the asset declaration required of all public officials.

The 144 billion rupiah he reportedly declared is even 50 billion rupiah less than the value of his home in the upmarket Jakarta suburb of Kebayoran Baru, which investigators searched for five hours last month while Novanto was officially a fugitive.

The KPK has frozen the bank accounts of Novanto, his wife and two children, and has extended its search for the spoils in Indonesia’s most egregious official graft case ever to nieces and nephews and to two family-owned companies and their directors and commissioners.

Delays in the second pre-trial hearing gave the KPK time to complete the case file and allow the corruption court to set a starting trial date, which fell just a day before the district court was due to deliver its ruling. As a result, the pre-trial proceedings became void.

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

What remains to be seen now is whether Parliament proceeds with its effort to introduce legislation that would effectively cripple the KPK by appointing an overall supervisory body, removing its powers of prosecution and revoking its right to wiretap – a key tool in all graft probes.

While there has been plenty of denials, the catalyst for the bill’s revival stems from the fact that nine of the 10 political parties benefited in one way or another from the E-KTP rip-off, along with 37 lawmakers from the 2009-2014 parliamentary legal commission.

The scandal has already seen the jailing of two senior Home Ministry bureaucrats and may yet claim a lot more scalps, among them acting Golkar chairman Idrus Marham himself and possibly PDI-P’s deposed Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, jailed earlier this year for blasphemy, who reportedly sent the money back.

So far, none of the lawmakers have been indicted — and neither have a long list of other figures linked to the case, including justice minister Yasonna Laoly (PDI-P), Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo (PDI-P) and Anas Urbaningrun, the ex-Democrat chairman already serving eight years for corruption.

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

One of those implicated is Golkar’s Agun Gunandjar Sudarsa, chairman of the special parliamentary committee of inquiry seeking to justify the clipping of the KPK’s wings. KPK documents allege he received US$1.04 million from the illegal windfall.

It is yet another sign that vested interests and legal niceties mean very little in Indonesia’s political life. Neither does the rhetoric from lawmakers who have convinced no-one that weakening the KPK’s powers is justified in the face of a Parliament notorious for its money politics.

With the legislative process now seemingly dragging on into the new year, Widodo may be compelled to intervene again if he feels it could harm his chances of re-election in 2019.

“The president shouldn’t just sit on his hands,” Tempo magazine said in a July editorial. “(He) must immediately stop the move by these parties unless he wants to be accused of going along with the weakening of the KPK.”