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JAKARTA - The Supreme Court decision overturning the conviction of House Speaker Akbar Tanjung landed with the thud of a police baton on the future of reform in Indonesia. The ruling will have its most direct impact on the July 5 presidential election, but ripples will be felt throughout society. Despite some potential bright spots in the verdict and its aftermath, it's a dark day for justice and hope for this nation of 220 million people.
Tanjung, who also chairs the Golkar party that was former president Suharto's ruling vehicle, was convicted in 2002 of embezzling Rp40 billion (US$4.8 billion) and sentenced to three years in jail. The verdict was upheld on appeal last year.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. In February 1999, then-president B J Habibie tasked Tanjung, then a minister/state secretary in the cabinet, to draw Rp40 billion from the State Logistics Agency (known by its Indonesian abbreviation Bulog) for a food-distribution program for the poor. Despite the absence of any bidding process or apparent program plan, Bulog wrote Tanjung a series of checks totaling Rp40 billion, but no food ever crossed the poverty line.
Tanjung, who first denied that he'd ever received any checks, testified that he gave the money to an obscure foundation with no experience in food distribution headed by Dadang Ruskandar that passed the funds along to a businessman, Winfried Simatupang, to carry out the program. On the eve of their trial in 2002, Simatupang returned Rp32.5 billion to the government.
Both men were implicated in the case along with Tanjung, and the Supreme Court upheld their convictions on Thursday. It acquitted Tanjung on the grounds that he had been carrying out a presidential order, even if he did so with extraordinary ineptitude.

'Shameful conduct'

Optimists can find a sign of fledgling judicial independence, since a member of the five-judge panel publicly dissented from the verdict. "At a time when the country was sinking in crisis, the actions of the defendant truly violated one's sense of justice," Judge Abdurrahman Saleh said in dissent. He characterized Tanjung's administration of the project as "shameful conduct because he failed to show minimal, appropriate efforts to protect state money" and categorized it as "corrupt practice" worthy of a conviction.
Another good sign is that activists took to the streets in at least a half-dozen cities, calling for the justices to uphold Tanjung's conviction. People, particularly students, still have hopes for reform despite a string of disappointments. As in the bad old days of authoritarian rule that the verdict upheld, 60 demonstrators in Jakarta were injured, mainly by baton-wielding police.
Those bad old days in the streets will move more deeply into the presidential palace with the help of the verdict. Unburdened of his conviction, Tanjung becomes the prohibitive favorite to win Golkar's presidential nomination in a crowded field that features political novices, the Sultan of Yogyakarta, two former Suharto-era generals, and one respectable figure, Minister of People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla, who has brokered settlements of sectarian clashes in Sulawesi and Ambon.

Uniter, not a divider

Golkar members tend to be the most loyal of party supporters, and Tanjung commands the greatest personal loyalty within Golkar. He took a party that was in ruins after the ouster of Suharto, held the party together and led it to a second-place finish with nearly a quarter of the vote in the 1999 election. He is the one figure who can keep the party united; any other nominee would likely splinter Golkar as the losers took up with smaller parties, carrying supporters and funding with them.
In recent days, as rumors of an acquittal spread, supporters of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P) put out word that she preferred Tanjung as the Golkar nominee rather than Golkar rival former General Wiranto, featuring an anti-corruption platform and reported grassroots appeal. The US Embassy recently revealed that Wiranto is on its visa watch list because of his United Nations indictment for human-rights crimes as commander of Indonesian military forces at the height of violence in East Timor; a bad word from the Americans is always good for a pop in the polls these days. (Tanjung's election would be another mark against resumption of US military aid.)
The assertion that Megawati would rather face Tanjung may be Merdeka Palace's way of trying to make lemons into lemonade ahead of his acquittal, or it could constitute a clever ploy by the president's supporters to divide Golkar or encourage a minor party to tap Wiranto and pull military votes away from Golkar. (It could also be meaningless, as are most things Indonesian politicians say.)

Happy valentines

Even though PDI-P became the biggest party in the 1999 vote as the standard-bearer of reform, explicitly opposing three decades of Golkar rule, the two parties have become increasingly cozy since 2001, when Golkar helped Megawati become president, unseating Abdurrahman Wahid, who instituted the proceedings against Tanjung and supported genuine reform during his muddled rule. After the Supreme Court verdict, PDI-P's deputy chairman refused to rule out Tanjung as Megawati's presidential running mate.
Tanjung's Golkar and Megawati's PDI-P are expected to be the top vote getters in the legislative elections set for April 5, and they'll likely top the presidential poll on July 5. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will be held in September. Each group dreams of a third-party candidate sneaking into second place in the presidential election, behind its own candidate, of course. The two major parties could then combine forces to crush that candidate in the runoff and enjoy another happy cohabitation in government, with a clear senior and junior partner.
Megawati's PDI-P has done little to cause Golkar or other former Suharto regime favorites discomfort. There's been no drive to fight burgeoning corruption, change politicians' sense of entitlement, reform the military or, as Thursday's verdict demonstrates, create a competent, independent judiciary. Those policies not only doom the dreams of reformasi that accompanied the ouster of Suharto in 1998, but condemn the economy to continue to struggle with 40 million unemployed as foreign investors shun the nation.
Despite the flickers of hope, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in favor of the political and economic status quo in Indonesia. That's a loss for the people of Indonesia and another indication that Indonesia's political elite couldn't care less.

See also: General Elections 2004

Posted in Politics @ 16 February 2004 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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