Tue, 24 Jun 2003

It's never simple

Nothing is as simple as it seems, especially in Indonesian politics. The procurement of Russian jet fighters and helicopters by the government was supposed to have been a simple and straightforward affair. But the House of Representatives, and a host of other interested parties, including the mainstream media hungry for political scandals, have decided differently.

With the nation preparing for general elections and presidential elections in 2004, one can sense that this affair has been politicized, and will be even more so in the coming months. Commission I of the House decided last week to launch an investigation into the procurement, setting the stage for a drawn-out and possibly bloody affair.

Where this is leading us to is anybody's guess.

But since Bulog, the state logistics agency, is also implicated in this affair, we can turn to earlier Bulog-related scandals for possible answers. Buloggate I cost Abdurrahman Wahid, whom Megawati Soekarnoputri replaced in 2001, his presidency. Buloggate II is now costing House Speaker Akbar Tandjung his political future, including his bid for the presidency, although not (yet) his job.

This time around, the nation's political pundits prefer to settle for the more exotic term "Sukhoigate", named after the Russian state-of-the-art jet fighter, instead of going for Buloggate III. But the target is clear: President Megawati herself, or failing that, those close around her.

Sukhoigate started with President Megawati's decision to buy four Sukhoi planes and two military helicopters during her state visit to Russia in April.

Few people had questioned then about the need to buy these planes or the choice of Russian military technology. The nation's air force's equipment is already in an appalling state to the point that we have compromised our air defense capability. The government does not have the budget to fully modernize the air force, but we could at least start with four, if only to keep ourselves up with technological changes. And Russia was chosen because our traditional supplier, the United States, has imposed an embargo on all sales of military hardware.

With the government stretched for money, Megawati did well in securing a barter deal for the six aircraft, worth $193 million, in exchange for 30 Indonesian commodities and products.

Bulog was brought in because of its expertise in gathering the products. And Bulog, upon a request from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, asked state-run Bank Bukopin to pay $26 million to the Russian handling agent, Rosoboronexport, as a down payment.

This sounds simple enough, or at least nobody questioned the deal even when she returned home from Russia. That is, until the House recently learned of at least two flaws in the deal, thanks to revelations by Megawati's own Cabinet members.

First, Minister of Finance Boediono refused to repay the $26 million to Bank Bukopin without the House's approval. Further disbursement for the payment of the deal could not be made without the House's consent either, he said. Essentially, the purchase of the Russian aircraft is a government spending, and this particular item is not part of the 2003 Budget approved by the House before January.

Second, Minister of Defense Matori Abdul Djalil stated that he was never brought into the discussions to buy the Russian planes. This according to the House, is in violation of the law that states that the Minister of Defense is the official responsible for the procurement of all military equipment.

It is unclear why the two ministers went public with this information that essentially undermined the authority of their own bosses. What is clear is that President Megawati had clearly violated several procedures in purchasing the planes.

But nothing is ever simple in Indonesian politics. The affair has triggered speculation that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. There has been speculation that this campaign was launched by local politicians serving the interests of the United States; there is speculation that some people are reaping financial profits from this deal; there is also speculation that the House investigation is intended to bring down the Megawati presidency.

Having gone through successive political scandals, including two Buloggates, this nation is now in for another one that promises to be no less interesting. It is interesting not only because of the players involved and the possible international implications, but also because of the ability of our politicians to make simple things complicated.

The actions of our elected politicians are beyond the control of the electorate. If they have chosen this investigation to be their next preoccupation over other more important matters, then, that is their choice. Like it or not, this investigation will proceed and will consume the time and resources of our politicians, political pundits and the media. We may as well sit back and enjoy this new political comedy brought before us.