Indonesians have been riveted for the last two weeks by a bizarre series of events that finally led to the arrest late last week of Setya Novanto, the speaker of the DPR, Indonesia’s national legislature.
The saga began on the evening of 16 November when Novanto was booked into Jakarta’s Medika Permata Hijau hospital, claimed to be suffering concussion and vertigo after crashing his car into a utility pole.
Questions were raised when it emerged that Novanto had been named a fugitive by the national Anti-Corruption Commission (Komisi Pemberantas Korupsi, KPK). It soon became clear that there was little damage to the car or the pole, and even less evidence that Novanto had suffered any injury at all.
The episode was made all the more galling by the fact that it had happened before. About two months earlier, the Speaker repeatedly ignored KPK summons for questioning, claiming that been hospitalised for illness.
But he became a social media laughing stock when photos released to prove his dire medical condition showed he was connected to medical equipment that was not even plugged in. Novanto has since reported dozens of social media users to the police, and it seems likely they will face prosecution for memes of Novanto malingering that quickly went viral.
Netizens seem unfazed by this, however, and some were even inspired anew by Novanto’s recent car crash to pump out still more memes. Most are grouped under the hashtag #savetianglistrik (“#save the electricity pole”), and depict the pole being rushed to emergency or recovering in hospital. One social media user with too much time on his or her hands even created a smartphone game, the goal of which was to “collide with electricity poles to be admitted to the emergency department”.
The KPK finally said what most Indonesians already thought was the case: that Novanto had, in fact, staged the whole episode to avoid arrest for his alleged role in causing state losses of $225 million linked to a national electronic identity card scheme. This is a major national corruption scandal that has implicated at least 37 DPR legislators in addition to Novanto.
Novanto’s failure to answer a KPK summons for questioning about the ID card case on 15 November was at least the 11th time he had been a no-show and it was this that finally triggered the issue of a warrant for his arrest. Novanto obviously knew this was coming, because hours before the warrant was actually issued, he lodged a pre-trial application with the notorious South Jakarta District Court, challenging the KPK’s designation of him as a suspect.
Later that day, the KPK arrived at Novanto’s home to arrest him., but he was nowhere to be found. They declared him a fugitive the next day and Vice President Jusuf Kalla publicly called for Novanto to turn himself in. It was later that evening that Novanto’s car gently bumped into the utility pole (leaving a small fender dent, without the airbags inflating or the headlights cracking), and his driver took him to the hospital.
By 17 November, Novanto had been moved to another hospital, RS Cipto Mangkusomo, where he underwent tests. By 18 November, however, the game was up, with the medical director announcing that Novanto did not require hospitalisation. The KPK finally hauled him off to its cells in Jakarta’s Cipinang Prison.
But this may not be the end of the famously slippery Novanto, a powerful politician who as well as being Speaker is also chair of Golkar, the political party originally established by President Soeharto, and now the second largest party in the country.
For years, Novanto has repeatedly beaten allegations of criminal behaviour, with seemingly few scruples about how he does it. The pre-trial application he lodged before his car hit the pole may be his way out of this particular mess. Certainly it is a method he has used before.
In late September this year, the South Jakarta District Court upheld an earlier pre-trial application by Novanto, striking down the first declaration by the KPK that he was a suspect in the ID card case. This decision was highly controversial at the time and many suspected that Novanto had somehow been able to influence the court.
Pre-trial hearings were originally intended only to allow the validity of arrest or detention before trial. In 2015, however, the courts re-interpreted the law to allow pre-trial hearings to also decide whether a person had been validly designated a suspect. Since then, they have become an effective way for corruption suspects like Novanto to stymie investigations at an early stage.
That is not enough to stop the KPK, however. Supreme Court and Constitutional Court rulings allow it to re-designate a person a suspect if sufficient evidence exists, and this is what the KPK has now done.
Novanto will obviously be hoping for another decision in his favour when his latest pre-trial application is heard on 30 November. But to do that, he has to prevent his trial for corruption actually beginning by then, because once that happens, the pre-trial process falls away. This may be why he is reportedly delaying KPK investigators by repeatedly “falling asleep” during questioning, making it very difficult for them to get answers from him.
And just as insurance, he has also reported the head of the KPK to the police for forgery and filed a challenge with the Constitutional Court calling on it to strike out the statute establishing the KPK.
This absurd chain of events should be pure comedy, but unfortunately it has a very dark side. It is just the latest skirmish in the long war between Indonesia’s political elite and the skilful and courageous investigators linked to the KPK.
One of the few things most of Indonesia’s divided and fractious politicians and senior public servants agree on is that they loathe and fear the KPK. They have made repeated efforts to pass laws to close it down or strip it of its powers, and are often effective in using legal mechanisms and pliant judges to halt investigations. Senior staff have been framed with corruption charges and one investigator was even partially blinded in an acid attack.
In fact, the only thing standing between the KPK and oblivion is its huge public popularity. With Indonesia’s deeply institutionalised corruption a daily problem for ordinary citizens, and an election pending in 2019, President Joko Widodo and his advisors know that his support would be badly eroded if the KPK went under on his watch.
But that is not something that bothers Indonesia’s Houdini, Setya Novanto, one little bit.
Professor Tim Lindsey is director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.