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

Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) staggers from one misstep to another as it tries to dig itself out of an embarrassing hole left by what appears to be a blatant attempt to bribe the General Elections Commission (KPU) over a dead man’s vote.

Wahyu Setiawan, one of seven KPU commissioners, was arrested on January 8 for allegedly accepting 900 million rupiah (US$63,800) to confirm lawyer Harun Masiku as PDI-P’s single representative for the electorate covering the South Sumatra capital of Palembang and four surrounding regencies.

With the majority of the votes surprisingly going to newly-deceased sitting member Nazaruddin Kiemas, the KPU had already declared second-placed Riezky Aprilia, 37, as the successful candidate in last April’s parliamentary elections with 44,420 ballots, five times more than fifth-placed Masiku.

Events since then have gone from bad to farcical, with the newly appointed Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), immigration officials, Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly and PDI-P secretary-general Hasto Kristiyanto all cast in an unflattering light.

Masiku was reported to have fled to Singapore on January 6, three days before the KPK also declared him a suspect in the bribery case. But just as an Interpol Red Notice was supposedly being considered, CCTV footage showed the apparent fugitive had returned the following day.

Indonesian politician Harun Masiku before he went into hiding. Photo: Facebook

He is still in hiding, despite a half-hearted manhunt that suggests some people would be happy if he wasn’t found. KPK chairman Firli Bahuri, a retired police general whose recent appointment was greeted with much controversy because of an alleged ethical violation, likened the search to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Kristiyanto, 53, a fervent Megawati loyalist, has denied any involvement in the case, but he, Setiawan and one of Kristiyanto’s aides, a suspected bagman who remains in custody, are all personally linked through the Indonesian Nationalist Student Movement (GMNI).

Critics are using the scandal as evidence of what they always feared after Parliament passed an amended KPK Law last year, which robbed the commission of its independence and also its effectiveness in fighting corruption.

KPK investigators have already been blocked from searching Kristiyanto’s office; when detained by police, they were even reportedly forced to submit to a urine test for reasons which are not entirely clear.

“This situation is the fruit of the Joko Widodo government’s systematic and structural undermining of the KPK,” said Tempo newsweekly, casting serious doubt on whether the new commissioners will pursue the bribery case “to the hilt.”

Laoly, who as late as January 16 was insisting that Masiku was not in Indonesia, has also come under fire for appearing at a subsequent press conference with the wanted politician’s legal team.

The minister claimed he was only there as a representative of the PDI-P’s central board and that his presence did not mean he was improperly intervening in the case.

Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

It is still not clear why Megawati and the party leadership thought it so important for Masiku, a 48-year-old English-educated corporate lawyer, to replace Kiemas, a three-term legislator who died three weeks before the elections.

Because he had already formally registered as a candidate for South Sumatra Electorate I, KPU regulations meant that the deceased Kiemas, the younger brother of Taufik Kiemas, Megawati’s late husband, remained on the ballot when the country went to the polls.

Strangely, his death seemed to make little difference to his popularity. But the estimated 40,000-50,000 votes he received went to the party alone, which explains why PDI-P itself got 145,752 out of a total of 265,160 votes, more than the seven living candidates put together.

Masiku embarked on his still-born political career in 2014, running for the Democrat Party in the coffee-growing Toraja region of South Sulawesi. But he received few votes and as one party source says now: “He wasn’t active in the party and, frankly, we didn’t see anything special in him.”

For some reason, PDI-P did. Beginning in mid-2019, the party sent three letters to the KPU, one signed by Megawati herself, saying it wanted Nazaruddin’s votes transferred to Masiku, which would allow him to take over Aprilia’s seat in Parliament.

The PDI-P based its request on a seemingly ambiguous Supreme Court opinion that while votes won by a deceased candidate still belong to that candidate, parties should have some discretion on a replacement.

Election Commission member Wahyu Setiawan in the hot seat. Photo: Facebook

Setiawan’s colleagues on the KPU do not appear to have been impressed with the argument, choosing on January 6, two days before the 46-year-old commissioner’s arrest, to finally deny the PDI-P’s petition.

“This is an effort to reassert the old practice where the party has the ultimate say over who sits in Parliament,” says one legal expert. “It is [Suharto-era] New Order thinking, which holds that when the people vote, they vote for the party and not for the person.”

It also fits with the thinking of Megawati herself, the self-appointed guardian of her late father, president Sukarno’s legacy, who, despite overwhelming public opposition has made no secret of her desire to see Indonesia return to indirect presidential elections.

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