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Analysis: Corruption charge against minister alters 2024 political landscape

Jakarta Post - May 29, 2023

Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – The arrest of a top Cabinet minister on charges of corruption will alter the political landscape ahead of the February 2024 general elections, with presumptive presidential candidate Anies Baswedan and his chief sponsor, the NasDem Party, taking big hits.

Never mind whether Johnny G. Plate, the communications and information minister, is guilty or not, his arrest on May 18 clearly was timed to undermine the electoral chances of both NasDem, to which he belongs, and Anies, the former Jakarta governor. Johnny may walk free at the end of the investigation, which will take a long process, but the damage will already have been done.

The move to name Johnny as suspect seems to have the fingerprints of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo all over. Although Jokowi cannot run for a third term, he has been maneuvering to ensure his successor will protect and continue his legacy. He has publicly endorsed two other presumptive candidates, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, but not Anies, who has been campaigning for change after Indonesia was led by Jokowi for two terms.

Jokowi retains some influence in the 2024 presidential outcome even though he does not chair any political party. He controls to some extent the fate of the seven parties in his coalition government, of which NasDem is one of them. And he commands the loyalty of millions of diehard nonpartisan supporters who will vote for the party and the presidential candidate that he chooses.

When NasDem formally announced in November that Anies would be its presidential candidate, other parties in the coalition demanded NasDem be expelled. Jokowi did not budge, and typical of a Javanese politician who keeps his hands clean, he got the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to do his bidding, arresting Johnny on charges of corruption for the construction of telephone towers in frontier areas.

The KPK said it would follow the trail of the Rp 8 trillion (US$530 million) that Johnny is accused of embezzling, sending clear signals that the investigation will go all the way to NasDem. If found guilty of accepting bribes, under the law on political parties, the court may dissolve the party.

Johnny has denied the charges, saying he was a self-made billionaire and had no need to steal. The telephone towers project contract went to his brother.

NasDem chairman Surya Paloh said the KPK was welcomed to investigate the party's finances to help clean the party's name and reputation.

The party, which made its electoral debut in 2014, came fifth in 2019. NasDem will now have to tamper its ambition to make it to the top three in the 2024 elections. The party is also coming under a lot of pressure to drop its nomination of Anies and save the party's fortunes at the poll.

What's more

For much of the past two years, the KPK has tried to find evidence of corruption against Anies, investigating possible financial irregularities in staging the Formula-E race in Jakarta in 2021. Dozens of people have been summoned by the KPK, some held for long hours for questioning. Many of those questioned said privately that all the questions were directed at the possibility of Anies' involvement. The KPK has not found the evidence it wants, but the mention of the KPK investigating Anies is enough to convince some people to rethink voting for him.

Anies has been trailing Prabowo and Ganjar in all public opinion surveys on the most popular candidates for 2024, but with a sizable number of people not committed in these surveys, he could still produce an upset in February. NasDem chair Surya has insisted that his relations with Jokowi remained cordial and that the party would continue to remain loyal to the President until the end of his term in October 2024. He insisted that NasDem's choice of Anies must also be respected.

In the weeks before Johnny was named a corruption suspect, Metro TV, which Surya owns, had been covering how Jokowi was getting himself involved in the 2024 race intensively. The TV station interviewed senior politicians and political analysts, including former vice president Jusuf Kalla, to say that the President was behaving unethically.

It is clear relations between Jokowi and Surya are not going well. Two NasDem ministers are still in the Cabinet, although holding lesser strategic posts. Their fate is uncertain given the deterioration in Surya's relationship with the President.

What we've heard

Several sources suggest that the graft case involving Johnny Plate will implicate other figures outside the government.

One of them is Happy Hapsoro Sukmonohadi, the husband of the House of Representatives Speaker Puan Maharani, and son-in-law of Megawati Soekarnoputri. Happy was involved as a power provider in this signal transmitter project. A source familiar with the case said the Deputy Attorney General for Special Crimes, Febrie Adriansyah, was summoned to the State Palace a day before Plate was named a suspect.

The Palace inquired about indications of Happy's involvement. "He [Febrie] said that Happy was not involved," said the source. Febrie is a loyalist of Attorney General ST Burhanuddin, who is affiliated with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Burhanuddin has an interest in investigating this case due to Happy's close association with PDI-P.

According to the same source, the attorney general immediately ordered the director of investigation to take over the probe as Febrie was reluctant to do the job. Following the takeover, Plate was named as a suspect.

"Happy's business group plans to file a pretrial motion to prevent the investigation from expanding," said the source.

The prosecution of Plate has affected the political landscape. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is reportedly considering a cabinet reshuffle, while NasDem Party chairman Surya Paloh said he would not propose a candidate to replace Plate. Some NasDem politicians said the latest development indicated that Jokowi is ready to confront Paloh.

Anies Baswedan's presidential bid is also disrupted. A close associate in the Coalition for Change – a coalition of parties supporting Anies – revealed that Anies met with the Golkar Party chairman Airlangga Hartarto to save his nomination. To conceal the meeting, which was arranged by Golkar politicians, Anies had to change cars up to four times. During the meeting, Airlangga offered himself as a vice-presidential candidate for Anies. "The move aims to undermine the Coalition for Change," said the politician.

[This content is provided by Tenggara Strategics in collaboration with The Jakarta Post to serve the latest comprehensive and reliable analysis on Indonesia's political and business landscape.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2023/05/29/analysis-corruption-charge-against-minister-alters-2024-political-landscape.htm