United Development Party leader Muhammad Romahurmuziy falls on corruption charges just weeks ahead of national elections. Photo: Facebook

In a video-taped speech on Anti-Corruption Day last year, United Development Party (PPP) chairman Muhammad Romahurmuziy asserted that only a thin line separated officials from criminals. “Today the official governs,” he said, “the next day he can become a criminal.”

Romahurmuziy may have been reminded of that quote when he was arrested last week on corruption charges, in what may be the final nail in the coffin of the country’s second oldest political party just a month before April 17 legislative and presidential elections.

Most polls already show PPP below the 4% vote threshold needed to secure representation in the 575-seat People’s Representative Council (DPR), trailing far behind National Awakening (PKB), the other party which leans on the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama for its support.

Romahurmuziy, 44, was taken into custody on March 15 in a sting operation by Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) investigators at the Surabaya offices of the Religious Affairs Ministry, the single portfolio controlled by PPP in President Joko Widodo’s 34-member Cabinet.

He and two other suspects are accused of taking bribes for promoting officials in a ministry that has long been seen as one of the most corrupt in the Indonesian bureaucracy, despite being an institution that should normally be expected to uphold high moral standards.

United Development Party chairman Muhammad Romahurmuziy in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Current Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Syaifuddin, another senior PPP politician who has played a leading role in tamping down an alarming rise in religious intolerance, is also under the spotlight as the KPK seeks to determine the extent of the influence-peddling scheme.

People familiar with the case say they expect the investigation to extend to the Central Java city of Jogjakarta and widen even further as more people are questioned. “This isn’t new,” says one source who requested anonymity. “There’s going to be many more similar cases.”

PPP is one of the six partners in Widodo’s ruling coalition and while the scale of the latest case pales in comparison with some recent corruption scandals, it comes at a particularly awkward time for both the party and the president.

“This is truly shameful,” Tempo daily newspaper said in an editorial. ”The ministry responsible for spiritual development has been scandalized again and again by influence peddling, fake meetings, the manipulation of funds for mosques and the printing of the Koran, and the misuse of haj funds.”

Blasphemy cases have spread across Indonesia in recent years, but the theft of money meant for the haj and other religious purposes, described by anti-graft activist Natalia Soebagjo as “abominably disgusting and sacrilegious,” has never been treated with the same level of seriousness.

Romahurmuziy is the second successive PPP leader to face corruption charges. Previous party chairman Suryadarma Ali, who was also the religious affairs minister, was jailed for 10 years in 2016 for siphoning off 13 billion rupiah (US$1.7 million) from the state’s Haj Pilgrimage Fund.

A man walks at the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on July 30, 2018. Photo: Garry Lotulung/NurPhoto via AFP Forum

He wasn’t the first. In 2006, Said Agil al-Munawar received a five-year sentence for embezzling 35.7 billion rupiah ($5.3 million) from the same fund during his term as religious affairs minister in the Megawati Sukarnoputri government between 2001 and 2004.

The great-great grandson of NU founder Abdul Wahab Hasbullah, Romahurmuziy became a close associate of Suryadarma after he joined PPP in 2004, later serving as the party’s deputy secretary-general in 2007-2012 and winning a parliamentary seat in 2009.

Now ensconced in a three-level mansion in the suburbs of Jakarta, he came under suspicion when Suryadarma was arrested in 2013, according to sources close to the KPK. But he was never indicted and the following year was elected to the party’s leadership.

It is not clear whether Romahurmuziy is being accused of self-enrichment or raising money for PPP’s electoral war chest, but the case has once again raised the long-standing issue of whether the state should provide funding to cash-strapped parties.

“Some people feel that the high cost of politics has led to corruption becoming widespread,” said Kompas, Indonesia’s leading newspaper. ”This could be correct, but not all cases are the same. In many instances, corruption is caused merely by greed and the desire to get rich fast.”

“We have now reached a critical stage of corruption,” the newspaper went on. “This is the nation’s worst enemy. Corruption has contributed to our continued poverty and the widening gap (between rich and poor). This behavior has sickened the people.”

Party leaders previously jailed for corruption include former Democrat Party chairman Anas Urbaningrum, who had his original prison term extended from eight to 14 years, and ex-Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and Golkar chairmen Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq and Setya Novanto, both of whom are serving 18-year sentences.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Worried that Widodo’s favored candidate, Mohammad Mahfud, would use the vice presidency to head off their own presidential ambitions in 2024, Romahurmuziy and PKB chairman Muhamaim Askandar were two of the key figures behind the president’s last-hour decision to choose aged cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.

The pair are very different. “Romy is very arrogant and self-entitled,” says one NU source who knows both rivals. “Muhaimin keeps a lower profile, says hello to everyone and is also an excellent strategist. He has matured a lot in recent years.”

Former president Megawati, chairperson of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), also opposed Mahfud, a former Constitutional Court chief justice, but it was the threat from PPP and PKB to deprive the president of NU’s support that tipped the scales.

Formed in 1973 as a result of a forced merger between four Islamic-based parties then sitting on the People Representative Council (DPR), PPP was hobbled by internal divisions from the outset and never posed any serious opposition to then president Suharto’s ruling Golkar machine.

When popular NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid formed PKB in 1998, it became the main political vehicle for the mass Muslim organization. But following Wahid’s short-lived presidency, the party split into two distinct factions and saw its fortunes start to erode.

At the 2004 elections, PKB won 10.5% of the vote, ahead of the then fourth-placed PPP’s 8.1%. But in 2009, after a bitter falling out between the ailing Wahid and Muhaimin, PPP edged ahead of PKB, with both parties now trailing in the wake of Islam-based rivals PKS and the National Mandate Party (PAN).

An Indonesian woman casts her vote at a polling station on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

PKB regained some of its lost ground in the 2014 elections, winning 9% of the vote, and with Muhaimin working hard on strengthening the party’s links with NU and a hard core of influential pro-Widodo clerics, it is now polling at more than 10% ahead of next month’s elections.

PPP, on the other hand, has seen its stock plummet. In many ways, it has been the great survivor of modern Indonesian politics, offering little apart from an adherence to its Sharia platform and the secular Pancasila state ideology in equal and puzzling measure.

But with its slump in support among the NU faithful, and Romahurmuziy’s fall on corruption charges, PPP may have finally now reached its expiration date.

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