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Why Indonesia's anti-graft drive is backfiring on the president

Cleaning up corruption in Indonesia could be the main legacy that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be remembered for when he steps down after ten years as president in 2014. It looks increasingly likely, though, that history will view him differently in light of the revelations that many officials close to him have been involved in money scandals.

The resignation of Sports and Youth Minister Andi Alfian Mallarangeng over allegations of corruption -- a close confidant of Yudhoyono and a key figure in his Democratic Party -- indicates that the anti-graft drive which Yudhoyono unleashed has come full circle. The reverberations threaten to undermine his legacy and the future of his party.

The party has already lost its chief treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, who was sentenced to five years in jail for using his position to win lucrative government contracts and for siphoning off the commissions to the party's coffers (with the help of top party figures). A Democratic legislator, former beauty queen Angelina Sondakh, is also now on trail, facing a 12-year jail term for her alleged part in Nazaruddin's financial scam.

Following his court conviction in April, Nazaruddin named Sondakh and Mallarangeng among his alleged accomplices. Also named in court was Democratic Party Chairman Anas Urbaningrum, but while he has managed to evade prosecution, the barrage of negative media publicity is hurting the party's public standing ahead of the 2014 general election.

The Democratic Party is already resigned to the possibility that it will lose its lead in 2014, and some say the party will be lucky to end up among the top three. As the party's chief patron, President Yudhoyono reportedly warned party leaders in a closed-door session that it must be prepared to play the role of opposition after 2014 unless the party manages to clean up its act.

To compound its problems, the Democratic Party has no viable presidential candidate to offer voters in 2014. Yudhoyono is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, and he has already said that none of his immediate relatives -- meaning his wife and two sons -- will run for president. Two names earlier mentioned as possible candidates for the Democrats were Mallarangeng and Urbaningrum, but thanks to the corruption scandals, they can now be scratched off the list.

The Democratic Party came first in the 2009 elections with more than 21 percent of the vote; that was only the second time it participated in an Indonesian general election. A former lieutenant general, Yudhoyono created the party for the 2004 elections that helped him win the presidential election that same year and again five years later.

A crucial platform in both the 2004 and 2009 election victories was Yudhoyono's promise to rid Indonesia of corrupt practices rampant at the top level of government and society. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), set up at the start of his presidency in 2004, has become the center piece of his anti-graft campaign, jailing dozens of corrupt powerful politicians, businessmen, senior policemen, and members of the attorney general's office.

In the past year, the KPK has been targeting more and more people close to the president. Neither Yudhoyono nor his Democratic Party should take this personally. The KPK has been going after everyone. All the big political parties, state institutions, and powerful individuals have felt its touch.

To complicate matters for the president, two members of his cabinet are waging their own personal anti-corruption campaigns to take down colleagues in the Cabinet or politicians in House of Representatives. Minister of State Enterprises Dahlan Iskan has accused some members of the House of extorting money from the directors of state enterprises. Cabinet Secretary Dipo Alam has reported to the KPK about procurement irregularities in three ministries.

So what went wrong with President Yudhoyon's anti-graft campaign?

One possible explanation is that the Democratic Party, which started small in 2004 as a vehicle for Yudhoyono's presidential bid, may have become too big and too powerful for its own good, inevitably becoming involved in corrupt practices along the way. Operating a big party requires huge financial resources. Nazaruddin, a businessman by training, was recruited to become treasurer for the purpose of raising funds for the party.

It is also the case that the bigger the party became, the more difficult it became for Yudhoyono to control the behavior of its members. Although he is still the most powerful figure in the party, he does not have full control over the behavior of some of the party members.

He appears reluctant to act firmly against people in his inner circle accused of corruption, even when the evidence has been strong. He refused to intervene by maintaining the presumption of innocence until the law took its course, and even offered a meek defense on their behalf, stating that some government officials may have "unintentionally" engaged in corrupt practices, implying that some of these irregularities could have been carried out by staff without their knowledge.

Whatever his reasons, he is not helping the case for his party, whose popularity rating is dropping as the corruption investigations involving senior party members drag on. As for his legacy as Indonesia's top graft fighter, he can forget that for now.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

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