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Lawmakers are Fighting a Plan to Ban Corrupt Politicians From Elections, But Is It Still Not Enough?

An anti-corruption measure finds few fans in a political body once declared the country's "most-corrupt." Big surprise.
Photo by Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Indonesia's elections commission is pushing forward with a plan to bar all corruption convicts from ever running in an election again, despite pushback from other elections bodies over the plan being unconstitutional. The proposal even has the backing of President Joko Widodo, but it will probably end up being decided by the courts later this year.

"If the politicians don't agree with this regulation, then they are free to file for a judicial review with the Constitutional Court," Ilham Saputra, a KPU commissioner, told local press.

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The election commission's (KPU) logic is pretty clear. When an elected official has already proven themselves to be more interested in enriching themselves than their electorate, why should they be allowed to hold an office again?

But in at least two elections candidates currently embroiled in corruption scandals were able to skirt into office before the KPU's ban takes effect, winning powerful seats in the same regions they had previously been accused of corruption in.

In North Maluku, Ahmad Hidayat Mus, a Golkar Party member accused of manipulating a land deal that cost the state an estimated Rp 3.4 billion ($234,770 USD) in losses, won the governor's race with nearly 32 percent of the vote.

And in Tulungagung, a district in East Java, Syahri Mulyo, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), took the district chief's race with a landslide win, securing more than 60 percent of the vote, according to the KPU's preliminary totals.

Syahri, the incumbent candidate, was able to pull off this stunning win despite surrendering himself to anti-graft investigators only one month before the vote. He's been charged as part of a sweeping indictment of public officials in East Java all accused of taking kickbacks to secure construction firms lucrative government contracts.

His win is even more shocking when you consider the fact that Syahri was "missing," for part of the campaign season after he went into hiding to avoid a summons by the anti-graft body (KPK). He only turned himself in after repeated pleas by police, investigators, and his own political party.

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Last week's regional elections weren't a huge win for all (allegedly) corrupt politicians. In seven other races, candidates implicated in graft scandals lost at the polls. And in South Sulawesi, a candidate who previously served time for corruption and the son of a powerful political dynasty also tainted by allegations of their own both lost the election.

Critics of the KPU's ban argue that it's a human rights violation to tell someone they can't run in a democratic election. "The KPU has gone too far," Ahmad Baidowi, a lawmaker with the United Development Party (PPP), complained to the press. Why not let the public decide instead?

But that argument discounts the role money plays in local elections. Regional elections are almost a system set up for corruption. Candidates routinely spend fortunes to secure the backing of political parties, and then even more on campaign ads, events, and even the votes themselves. When candidates win, they now need to repay the donors who made their expensive race possible.

And when they lose, the crushing reality can be too much for some to bear. Local hospitals set up special psychiatric wards on election days to help treat losing candidates who feel overcome with depression and regret.

It's an environment that ripe for corruption, which is one of the reasons behind the rise in corruption cases following the country's rapid decentralization that placed more power in the hands of local officials.

And as officials at the House of Representatives, a political body named "most-corrupt" in a poll, and those at the elections supervisory body (Bawaslu) fight the KPU's ban, it's important to note that even if it had gone into effect before last week's elections, all nine candidates implicated in corruption cases still could've run. The KPU's new ban only bars candidates with a corruption conviction on their record from running in an election. Those merely facing charges and a court date would still be allowed to mount a campaign, and even win.

So, in the end, it still comes down to voters. As long as the public keeps voting in (allegedly) corrupt politicians, there will be corrupt politicians in power.