In countries where corruption is pervasive even at the highest levels of political and bureaucratic leadership, is it nonetheless possible to deter impunity? The dilemma, which I explored in a recent blog post, is that in many difficult governance environments the logic of power is centered around personalized deal-making. A culture of deal-making can all too easily degenerate into extremes of impunity, with profoundly corrosive effects on a country’s institutions – but where such deal-making has become central to the political culture stamping out corruption hardly seems plausible. In such settings, might it nonetheless be possible to establish a credible tripwire capable of deterring the worst abuses?
A remarkable example from Indonesia, explored in two papers written this past fall by graduate students of mine at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, suggests that that given the right combination of circumstances and creative activism the answer can be ‘yes’.
Indonesia certainly fits the bill of a difficult governance environment. Estimates of the amount of wealth amassed by the family of President Suharto during his 33-year reign (from 1965 to 1998) range from $15 billion to $73 billion. In 2004, Transparency International named him the most corrupt leader of the previous twenty years. Though things have improved since then, over the past decade the Worldwide Governance Indicators consistently locate Indonesia in the bottom third of countries globally in control of corruption.
But, against that backdrop, (and with thanks to Jake Thomases for making available his paper on Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency) consider the recent track record of Indonesia’s corruption-fighting agency, the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK). The legislation mandating the creation of the KPK was passed in 1999. The KPK began its work in 2003, after a four-year-long gestation.. Between 2003 and 2012, only 169 cases went to trial. The intensity of its efforts has increased over time — but even in 2013 only 81 cases were investigated. While superficially this track record might seem limited, the KPK has won increasing respect for its achievements, and admiration for its boldness. A 2008 poll showed that 82% of Indonesians thought of the KPK as the most trustworthy law enforcer. (The police and attorney general received 6% and 2% of the vote.)
The KPK indeed appears to be a tripwire against impunity. The fish caught were ‘big’ Among those it successfully prosecuted and convicted between 2008 and 2013 were: 72 members of parliament; a close family member of the sitting president; senior officials of the ruling party; the chief of one of the state-owned oil companies; the religious affairs minister; the chief justice of the constitutional court; and (perhaps most popular of all among citizen tired of being harassed on an almost daily basis) the commander of the National police traffic division. Further, contrary to the experience of anti-corruption drives in other countries, there has been no sign of any systematic targeting of political enemies while turning a blind eye to friends.
How, in an environment rife with personalized influence-peddling and deal-making has this track-record been possible? A proximate explanation lies in some of the features of the KPK’s design, and early-stage implementation. These included:
- Very broad investigative and prosecutorial powers that allowed the KPK to circumvent and overrule police and prosecutors. These powers included the right to tap phones without a court order, to impose travel bans, to freeze bank accounts, and to access financial records.
- Very robust and transparent mechanisms for appointing KPK leadership and staff – with staff selected from within the regular police and prosecutorial offices, and appointed only subsequent to extensive background checks. (Of 34,000 annual job applicants, only about 150 pass the background checks.)
- A very robust screening process before a case is brought to trial – but a requirement that once the KPK officially names a person as a suspect, it is required to reach the trial stage (a fail-safe arrangement to prevent prosecutors from dropping a case in exchange for a bribe).
- A wholly independent anti-corruption court to hear the trial — comprising five panelists, including three ad hoc appointees, drawn from eminent lawyers, legal scholars or retired judges.
As Matt Andrews emphasizes (his book, The Limits of Institutional Reform, features the KPK as an example), from the early conception of the idea of the KPK into its implementation, the reform approach was consistently inceremental. “The aim”, Andrews suggests, “was to start activity, learn from it, and build toward larger interventions.”
A deeper explanation for the KPK’s success is to be found in a happy combination of context and development entrepreneurship. As my SAIS student Chris Crow detailed in his paper on Indonesia’s democratic transition, the Indonesian environment in the latter 1990s offered a classic ‘window of opportunity’ for reform. (The law establishing the KPK was promulgated in 1999.) Suharto was forced from power in May, 1998. His handpicked successor, BJ Habibie, with virtually no independent power base of his own, tried to win legitimacy by turning to reformist segments of Indonesian society. Ryaas Rasyid, a young academic who had written his dissertation on democratic reform, was perfectly positioned for this moment. He had been appointed in the last years of Suharto’s rule to lead a task force of seven political scientists to scope out a plan for political reform. In latter 1998, in an effort to strengthen his legitimacy, Habibie turned to this group to draft a new set of electoral laws. ‘Team 7’, in turn, capitalized on their newly-won status as successful refomers to advocate successfully for far-reaching decentralization of the political system.
Skillful leveraging of reform space has consistently been central to Indonesia’s efforts to combat corruption, with momentum coming from a powerful network of allies in civil society. Indonesia Corruption Watch (established in 1998) and other activist groups played an important role in the initial push to establish the KPK. Its 1999 enabling legislation was drafted by a respected, reform-minded law professor, Romli Atmasasmita. Whenever the organization has been threatened, its allies have risen determinedly to its defense – including an episode in 2012 when in response to the KPK’s investigation of the police chief (and to quote Jake Thomases) “the police threatened to raid KPK headquarters and arrest the investigator. Word spread on the street. By the time 300 armed offers showed up and surrounded the building, there were already scores of people blocking the entrances with their bodies. The police gave in and retreated.”
Among democracy advocates, at a difficult time globally, Indonesia is coming to be seen as a beacon of hope. Part of this sense of hope comes from the message sent by the KPK’s successes – that powerful leaders act with impunity at their peril. To be sure, the country falls far, far short of anyone’s depiction of “good governance”. But what stands out (and the KPK exemplifies) is the sustained, determined focus of reformers both inside government and in civil society on achievable objectives, rather than on rhetorical flourishes — on a development strategy organized around what I describe in my recent book, Working with the Grain as “islands of effectiveness”.
“Hope”, I suggested in Working with the Grain, “can come in different intonations. There is the drumbeat of exhortation, of a world on the march to some more perfect destination on the horizon. But hope can also come in a quieter pitch: searching – encouraging deliberation, reflection, co-operation.” In its steady, incremental, cumulative progress, the KPK is an example of this latter kind of hope – as an important beacon pointing towards what is possible, even in difficult governance environments.