Democracy on the cheap

The arrest last week of the top leader of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) on corruption charges is a reminder of the precarious financial situation that all Indonesian political parties face. Operating with limited financial resources, parties may have gotten a little too creative in raising funds for the likes of the country's anti-graft commission.

PKS President Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq is the latest in a list of top elected Indonesian politicians implicated in corruption scandals. Those before him have included politicians from the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who ironically enough, was elected in 2004 and again 2009 on an anti-corruption platform.

None of the big parties are free from corruption scandals. One possible reason is that the politicians running the parties are often tasked with raising money for the party's coffers. Even Golkar -- which is the most financially well-endowed of all Indonesian parties, as it is backed by the diversified Bakrie business group, with former chairman, Aburizal Bakrie, also sitting as Golkar party chairman -- has not been spared from graft scandals.

With Indonesia heading into an election in 2014, these parties will likely be scrambling for more money to finance their campaigns. And as long as the issue of party finances is not resolved, parties will likely be forced to circumvent the law in their efforts to come up with the money. They somehow seem to think that they won't get caught.

Indonesia has organized three free and fair elections since the downfall of strongman Suharto in 1998. Its multi-party electoral system, however, is costly for the state to run, and also costly for the various parties to contest. In 1999, 48 parties contested in the election; in 2004, 24 parties; and in 2009, 44. Things were a lot simpler and easier to finance during the 30 years under Suharto, when only three parties were allowed to run in elections that were geared to ensure victory for the ruling party.

After 2009, there was a consensus that Indonesia needed a simpler electoral system. The House of Representatives has since come up with a new electoral law, but it is difficult for newcomers to join. The Electoral Commission ruled that only 10 parties, including nine that already have representation in the House, qualified to contest in the national polls next year.

But the law does not address the important question of party financing, an important element for a democracy to work. It says only that parties can raise money from members and from individual and corporate donations. While campaign funds are subject to independent auditing, parties' finances are not, except for the pittance of taxpayers' money that they receive from the state.

With membership fees and donations unlikely to cover the huge cost of running a political party and its secretariat, many politicians have tripped as they used their power and influence to help raise money for their parties.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), an independent state agency which has been aggressive in going after the corruption within political parties, has focused its investigation on individual politicians, as if they and they alone are to blame for the corruption. All court convictions in these corruption cases have stopped with the individual politicians. Their respective parties have not only been spared, but are even prepared to sacrifice the implicated politicians.

Luthfi was replaced as president of the PKS -- the country's fourth largest party -- the day after he was named a suspect in a corruption case regarding state procurement of beef imports from Australia. He has since also lost his seat in the House.

President Yudhoyono is coming under a lot of pressure from the Democratic Party's rank-and-file to remove Chairman Anas Urbaningrum, as his name repeatedly came up in court testimonies over financial scandals involving other party seniors. They say the president's reluctance to act is costing the party its public standing, and may jeopardize the party's prospects for the 2014 polls. 

The party's chief treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, has already been sentenced to seven years (raising the sentence from five) in jail for corruption, and he is determined not to go down alone. One prominent Democrat politician, Angelina Sondakh, has already been sentenced, and another, former minister of youth and sports Andi Alfian Mallarangeng, will soon be tried on charges of corruption over the construction of a huge sports complex near Jakarta.

Five of the six parties in Yudhoyono's coalition government have felt the brunt of the KPK.

A Golkar senior politician was recently named in a court document of profiting from the government's procurement of a special Quran; the chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Muhaimin Iskandar, has been named in several corruption cases within the Ministry of Labor and Resettlement, which he heads. Suryadharma Ali, the chairman of the United Development Party (PPP) and minister of religious affairs, is increasingly under the KPK spotlight as more cases of massive corruption within the ministry emerge. Minister of Agriculture Suswono, also from the PKS, will now have to answer questioning about his role in the allocation of a beef imports quota following Lutfhi's arrest.

Even the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the main opposition party, has seen many of its top representatives convicted for corruption.

No one can accuse the KPK of playing favorites, but many are asking why the KPK has not sought to trace where all the graft money has gone. What happened to the money that Muhammad Nazaruddin and Angelina Sondakh raised? Is it sitting in their bank accounts, or was it transferred to their party's treasures? Did they steal the money for themselves, or were they working to raise money for the party?

In the end, it may be just as well that the KPK has not pursued the investigation beyond the involvement of the individual politicians. The consequences of revealing the complicity of the political parties may just be too big of a problem for the nascent democracy to handle.

If the parties were found guilty of such massive corruption, the court system would be forced to shut them down. Indonesia may then be left with only a handful parties in 2014, which is not necessarily good for its democracy either. Outlawing these parties may raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the politicians who supported their entering the elections, including President Yudhoyono himself.

No one warned Indonesia that running a democracy would be this costly, and this complicated.

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images


Bucking the conventional wisdom on Libya

Whenever you see Libya mentioned in the headlines these days, it usually has something to do with security. The Western media has been awash with doom-and-gloom stories about the presumed anarchy in the country. You'd think that jihadis were running around all over the place.

Look, it's understandable that much of the coverage of Libya is shaped by the big story of the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. (And that impression has undoubtedly been reinforced by a series of recent travel advisories from Western governments who have been warning their citizens to stay away from Benghazi and the surrounding region.) That was a horrible tragedy. But if you see everything through that lens, you're going to get the bigger story wrong.

That mistake was dramatized recently by the questions British journalists were asking during Prime Minister David Cameron's recent visit to Tripoli. (Hat tip to Nigel Ash at the Libya Herald.) One of them asked, for example, whether it was true that the government's writ doesn't extend beyond the outskirts of the capital. In fact, the reality on the ground is that the numbers of police are growing and their patrols are increasingly visible. Some of the other reporters clearly didn't know the most basic facts about the circumstances of Libya's revolution. This says a lot about how the Western media are inclined to cover the place.

Look, it's true that post-revolution Libya faces huge challenges. No one denies that. But the progress we've been making is also remarkable if you consider the extent of the vacuum left behind by a 42-year dictatorship.

To start with, don't forget how the majority of Libyans cast their votes in the country's first general election last year. They overwhelmingly chose the members of parties that are more liberal rather than religious ones. Libyans are Muslims, and they love Islam, but the fact that they don't necessarily want Islamist parties to govern clearly shows what sort of system they prefer. In the wake of Stevens' death, 30,000 people in Benghazi took to the streets to demonstrate against terrorism and violence on the night of September 21, 2012. That shows that most Libyans still aspire to democracy and the rule of law, and that they remain resolutely opposed to any form of terrorism or tyranny.

The economy is picking up. The government has stabilized the banking sector. Oil production has resumed, quickly reaching pre-war levels despite the pessimistic predictions of the experts. Housing and construction projects are under way across the country; every day seems to bring the opening of a new mall or restaurant. Schools and universities opened their doors again immediately after Qaddafi's downfall in October 2011, and they've been working without interruption ever since. None of this really fits the definition of a failed state -- at least as far as I understand it.

As security goes, it's true that militias still hold sway in parts of the country. But the government has also been making good progress at reviving the army and police, which are upgrading training and equipment. The process of integrating revolutionaries into the security forces is also moving along. The Ministry of the Interior alone has registered 26,000 new recruits within the past two months.

As a Libyan who spent all his life under the Qaddafi regime, I can't help but worry that all the negative reporting from outside will have a negative effect on the country's development. The people I know are strongly optimistic about the country's future -- but climbing out of the hole that Qaddafi has bequeathed to us will certainly be much harder if our supporters in the international community see our country only in terms of no-hope scenarios. Investors certainly aren't going to invest in such a frightening place. And governments will certainly shy away as well. 

In a recent lecture in London, U.S. expert Ethan Chorin was bemoaning the minimal assistance that Libya has received from Washington since the revolution. The same could certainly be said of our friends in the European Union (though they are, at least, gradually putting together an assistance mission to the Libyan military -- better late than never). The problem, of course, is that pessimism can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's hope that our friends overseas don't succumb. So far, at least, Libyans themselves seem fairly immune.

Mohamed Eljarh, the newest addition to our regular lineup of Transitions bloggers, is a Libyan academic researcher and  activist. You can follow him on Twitter @eljarh.

Mohamed Eljarh is a Libyan academic researcher and political, social development activist. He is from the city of Tobruk in Eastern Libya.  Follow him on Twitter @Eljarh or email to: ]

Photo by FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images