Sat, 08 Apr 2000

Money politics popular in Medan

By Donna K. Woodward

MEDAN (JP): In 1998 Indonesians joined forces against Soeharto, united in their belief that to overcome corruption a clean leader was needed.

On the national level there is now an honorable president who has begun appointing persons of integrity to key positions; some of those appointees are in turn trying to cleanse their ministries. But what about in the provinces?

For weeks Medan has been embroiled in allegations that there was vote buying in the mayoral election. Allegations were followed by admissions that were followed by denials and recanting.

Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations were staged by interested political parties supported by their youth-group contingents that are subsidized from gangsterism, supported by legal and illegal businesses operations.

Medan is notorious across Indonesia and beyond for the pervasiveness of the collusion between business and government.

Unfortunately in Medan, some government and political leaders seem more interested in protecting political and business cronies than in uncovering the truth about the election.

They have suggested that it is better to install the winner immediately than to hold a legitimate investigation first. The allegations may be unfounded, no more than vengeful rumors.

But if they are not investigated, for the next five years Medan will be hounded by the allegations that the city's government is illegitimate.

Medan, after all, is not some insignificant kampong. It is one of the country's most important trading centers and the Indonesian hub of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand growth triangle.

Yet Minister for Home Affairs Surjadi Soedirdja has been alarmingly vague about how he plans to respond to the situation.

Because of the ill repute in which past administrations here have been held, the public finds it easier to believe there was election fraud than to believe there was not.

In the last 18 months there has been hardly a regency in North Sumatra that has not seen mass demonstrations about corruption cases.

The former Langkat regent has been under investigation -- or rather has been avoiding investigation by flight to various hospitals -- for embezzling billions of rupiah in the years when the rupiah was well under Rp 3,000 per dollar.

The former North Sumatra governor was reportedly so blatant in his demands for facilitation money and for his other hanky-panky that it is hard to understand how he has avoided prosecution; unless one accepts the rumors that he in turn made payments to those in the provincial prosecutor's office who investigated his collusion, cronyism and nepotism in local development projects.

Despite the economic crisis Medan is wealthy, as most of North Sumatra tends to be, with its network of export-based natural resources, investment capital, manufacturing and processing companies, and entrepreneurs with marketing and distribution skills.

Collusion is a way of life. Payoffs are offered even before they are solicited. Officials will admit that the fees they demand are not legal: this is how confident they are of enjoying a free reign from higher-ups for their corrupt impulses.

As on the national level, local corruption will not end until those at the top are committed to its eradication.

In Medan officials seems oblivious of this fact. Official complacency gives rise to suspicions of official complicity.

If the community at large sees that officials do not care whether the current allegations are true or not, their not- surprising reaction is, "They're all corrupt."

This is why it is so important for Medan's leaders to investigate properly the allegations that Medan's mayoral seat was purchased like a used car.

Official Medan's insensitivity to the consequences of avoiding a credible investigation is frightening.

Many public statements have been made about Medan's election, but the person with the most to gain or lose in this matter has been quiet: Mayor-elect Abdillah himself.

His apparent lack of any sense of urgency about the allegations that his party bought the election for him is ominous. These allegations touch upon his personal honor.

Where is his call for a proper investigation by neutral, credible parties; where is his pride? Where is Medan's pride and its sense of shame?

The writer, an attorney and former American diplomat at the U.S. Consulate General in Medan, is president director of the Medan-based consultancy firm PT Far Horizons.