Government and governance | Southeast Asia, Asia

9 February 2021

Recent events highlight the scale of political corruption in Indonesia and reveal the need for a greater separation of the political and bureaucratic realms, Adfin Rochmad Baidhowah writes.

Corruption at the local level is a chronic illness that has poisoned Indonesia’s governance for many years. The recent arrest of the regent of Banggai Laut along with 16 bureaucrats on corruption charges by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is a reminder of the scale of this problem.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, the KPK arrested 13 heads of local government on corruption charges. Importantly, in every single one of the 13 corruption cases, public servants were directly involved in the allegations.

The key question for rooting out corruption in Indonesian politics is this: why are bureaucrats are so often involved in political corruption? The scholarship argues that the arrangement of Indonesia’s bureaucratic and political relations creates a ‘collusive’ governance design, allowing bureaucrats to be trapped in political corruption because they are not sufficiently protected from political influence.

To put it simply, Indonesia fails to enforce a separation of the bureaucratic and political realms. Three specific laws put in place by politicians – Law 8/1974, Law 43/1999, and Law 5/2014 – have made public servants vulnerable to political intervention, as they assign heads of local government the authority to manage the bureaucracy directly, whether it be their career development, promotions, or appointments. Most importantly, it means they can easily end a bureaucrat’s career if they so wish.

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To achieve political goals, heads of local government have been known to abuse this authority. Because of this fault in the system, re-assignment to an unattractive position or redundancy can be doled out to bureaucrats who do not obey local politicians, and bureaucrats who obey the desires of their head of local government can be promoted to a more attractive position without oversight.

This happens all the time. In 2020, bureaucrats in Pangkalpinang City, Bangka Belitung Province, North Aceh Regency, and Batu Bara Regency were made redundant from their positions, allegedly without clear reasons by their head of local government.

A 2019 survey from the State Civil Apparatus Commission of 454 public servants across Indonesia showed that the key variable for decision-making by elected politicians when it comes public servant management is a leader’s personal politics.

In 2019, the Commission also received complaints of 207 cases re-assignment, promotion, and redundancies without obvious reasons by heads of local government. This included 26 promotions without an open selection process, and 10 promotions where there was a process, but it was deemed problematic by the Commission.

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In addition to the separation issue, Indonesia assigns too little autonomy to its bureaucrats. Details of policy implementation and budget are entirely controlled by a head of local government, particularly in infrastructure development, the procurement of goods and services, and the granting of business permits. In these areas, seasoned bureaucrats are expected not to provide frank and fearless advice, but simply to serve the desires of the head of local government.

In infrastructure development, this stems from the fact that in cases of tenders for government projects, bureaucrats are required to defer the decision on who to award the contract solely to the head of the local government.

Similarly, authority to grant a permit to conduct business is entirely vested in the head of local government, while bureaucrats only manage administrative documents and zoning.

It is easy to see how such centralised authority could cause corruption problems and a subservient bureaucratic culture. These three areas – infrastructure development, the procurement of goods and services, and the granting of business permits – are the source of the majority of corruption in local government, and account for 12 of 13 corruption cases involving heads of local government in the last two years.

In many of these cases, bribery is alleged between heads of local government and businessmen – usually who supported them in elections – while bureaucrats were allegedly used to execute the plan. While this may seem to reflect poorly on Indonesia’s bureaucracy, it should be noted that many bureaucrats refuse to execute illegal orders of the heads of local government.

At the heart of the issue though is that when this happens, the head of local government has the structural power to simply make them redundant for their transgression. If they ever hope to fully root out corruption in their governance, Indonesian lawmakers must curb that authority.

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