A cyclist passes by murals warning residents of Covid-19 pandemic along a street in Surabaya on November 30, 2020. Photo: by Juni Kriswanto / AFP

Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara, the second member of President Joko Widodo’s second-term Cabinet to be arrested in less than a fortnight, could become the first Indonesian to face the death penalty for corruption for allegedly taking kickbacks in the distribution of coronavirus social assistance funds.

Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) chairman Firli Bahuri says the 48-year-old US-educated businessman could be charged under Article 2 of the 1999 Corruption Law, which prescribes capital punishment for officials who cause losses to the state during an emergency.

Batubara, a member of the central board of Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), is accused of accepting US$1.4 million in kickbacks from contractors engaged in delivering basic necessities to 10 million families impacted by the pandemic. 

Maritime Affairs Minister Edhy Prabowo, a long-time associate of Defense Minister and Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) leader Prabowo Subianto, was arrested on November 25 for receiving kickbacks from lobster seed exporters.

“If there are people who took advantage of the situation for their personal gain, then we will not hesitate to take firm action,” said Bahuri, an active police general whose selection as the head of the KPK was controversial because of alleged ethics violations.

Batubara was taken into custody on December 6 after the arrest of two Social Affairs Ministry officials and two private contractors in a sting operation in suburban Jakarta that netted millions of dollars of cash in three different currencies.

Indonesia’s Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara delivering a report in parliament in Jakarta, September 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bambang Tri

“That’s the people’s money, especially as it is related to social assistance in the context of handling Covid and restoring the economy,” Widodo said in a strongly-worded statement that hinted at little leniency for Batubara. “I will not protect those involved in corruption.” 

Widodo said he had reminded his Cabinet that corruption would not be tolerated and then went on to defend what is now the fifth anti-corruption commission, which has been under a cloud since it was inaugurated in January 2019.

Much of the criticism, apart from Bahuri himself, has centered on a new five-man supervisory council, a group of minders who have to sign off on all seizures, arrest warrants and phone taps in the course of any KPK investigation.

Legal activists saw the council’s creation as dealing a serious blow to the independence and therefore the effectiveness of the popular graft-fighting organization, slowing down its work and opening up the possibility of leaks that could stop a corruption case in its tracks.

The new council and other controversial changes were among amendments made to the 2002 KPK Law, which were rushed through the previous House of Representatives during its final sitting in September 2019 despite widespread protests.

PDI-P politicians have a long history of misdeeds, the latest coming last January when lawyer Harun Masiku paid an elections commissioner US$63,800 so he could jump over a more deserving candidate to fill the seat left by a newly-deceased parliamentarian. Masiku is still at large.

As the third-largest party, Gerindra has maintained a relatively clean reputation. Subianto’s businessman-brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, told reporters that Subianto was “extremely furious, very disappointed and feels betrayed” over Edhy Prabowo’s involvement in the lobster scam.

Indonesians on a boat destined for remote islands in the city of Batam, Riau Islands, Indonesia, on July 29, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Teguh Prihatna

It is clear the retired special forces general has no intention of allowing the scandal to affect his relationship with Widodo, who surprisingly appointed his presidential rival to the defense post in the wake of a bitterly-fought 2019 electioncampaign.

The arrest of the two ministers, unprecedented in such a short time span even in Indonesia’s corruption-prone context, may compel Widodo to advance his rumored plans to reshuffle the Cabinet, although he is likely to wait until early next year when there is more clarity on a Covid-19 vaccine.

Batubara’s arrest came on the same day as the arrival of the first shipment of China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine, one of six vaccines Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto has approved for use in Indonesia once they have completed clinical trials and other procedures.

Apart from Sinovac, those include the China National Pharmaceutical Group Corporation’s Sinopharm, British-based AstraZeneca, US-developed Pfizer-BioNTech and Indonesian company PT Bio Farma, whose vaccine won’t be available until early 2022. Most of the others are in phase three trials.

The Indonesian  Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) has so far refused to grant emergency use of the Sinovac shot until it is proven effective, but the two Chinese vaccines are likely to comprise the front end of the vaccination program.

Analysts believe the other vaccines were included in the list because of a pushback against the perceived reliance on China and the long-term reliability of their vaccines.

Chinese drugmaker SinoVac’s attenuated Covid-19 vaccine is now available in Yiwu for a pilot inoculation scheme. Photo: AFP

Indonesia, for example, does not have the deep-freeze equipment needed to store and distribute the Pfizer vaccine and it is still not clear what other supplies have been locked up to inoculate the 270 million-strong population.

The government will first be prioritizing an estimated 3.5 million health workers, contact tracing paramedics and military and law enforcement agencies, followed by five million religious and community leaders at the district and village level.

The next two stages will include the country’s four million teachers and about two million government officials and legislators, followed by the 86 million registered members of the subsidized universal healthcare program that had its beginnings more than a decade ago.