On February 12, the Indonesian Supreme Court voted, with one dissenting voice, to overturn a guilty verdict for corruption from two lower courts against parliamentary speaker Akbar Tanjung.
In September 2002, a Jakarta district court found Tanjung guilty of having embezzled 40 billion rupiah (US$4 million) in government funds which were allocated in 1999 to feed the poor after the 1997-98 economic crisis. He was sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
In January 2003, the Jakarta High Court upheld Tanjung's conviction and sentence.
However, the panel of five Supreme Court judges hearing Tanjung's appeal concluded that the lower courts had been mistaken and had relied on "weak evidence".
Tanjung, who is chairperson of the ousted dictator Suharto's old party, Golkar, was so confident of having his guilty verdict overturned by the Supreme Court that he invited large numbers of journalists to his house. At the same time, the Golkar parliamentarians had prepared a traditional thanksgiving feast. Not only Tanjung and Golkar, but the public at large was convinced that he would be let off the hook. This had been reflected in polls.
The dissenting judge, Abdurrahman Saleh, was quoted by the Jakarta Post as saying: "At a time when the country was sinking in the crisis, the actions of the defendant truly violated one's sense of justice."
Ombudsman Commission head Antonius Sujata added that the verdict itself and the tardy process by which it was reached had damaged the judicial system's image. "This is a miscarriage of justice. With this decision the public will have no more confidence in the judicial system and the government's efforts to stop corruption", he said.
In an editorial, the Jakarta Post said the Supreme Court decision "brings into question the quality of the entire judicial system in the eyes of the public and could seriously impair public trust in the judiciary as a whole — not to mention the wider political implications. Many Indonesians also see it as a serious setback in the fight against corruption, especially that within the country's notoriously corrupt judiciary."
A leading legal figure, Todung Mulya Lubis, made similar criticisms and pointed out that the upholding of Tanjung's conviction would have resulted in many other corrupt politicians being dragged before the courts.
The Supreme Court's decision was a form of assistance to the country's elit politik (political elite) as a whole and has clearly strengthened the deep sense of distrust and contempt for the elit politik in the public at large.
The NGO-initiated National Movement Against Choosing Rotten Politicians has lost profile after it announced it would not name any specific politicians or parties as "rotten". Despite this, the movement against corrupt politicians, mainly spearheaded by student groups, has continued to win support.
These groups are still relatively small as the student movement has not regained momentum after it collapsed in November 1998 following the dictator Suharto's ousting from power. At that time the majority of student leaders had put their faith in mainstream opposition figures, such as Megawati Sukarnoputri, Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, to lead the charge against Suharto's regime, established in the 1965-66 anti-democratic counterrevolution.
When these capitalist politicians refused to lead the mass uprising against institutions of the old regime — insisting that a gradual, electoral process of change had to be implemented — the student leadership became disoriented and the reformasi movement collapsed.
The increasing number of student protest actions around the issue of corrupt politicians and corrupt parties are reminiscent of the kinds of actions that occurred in the few years preceding the big student-led mass protests in 1998. Also, as in the early 1990s, the student protests have been paralleled by moves by the labour movement.
On February 6, a Trade Union Alliance Against Rotten Politicians was formed an issued a statement naming as "rotten" all the major parties plus the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), because they had voted for anti-worker legislation in the parliament.
It was also mainly students who mobilised on the streets against the Tanjung verdict. The largest mobilisation was by moderate Islamic fundamentalist students under the influence of the PKS. This party has been marking out its territory on the basis of being the most "morally clean", pointing to secularism as the cause of "moral decadence".
The few thousand students mobilised by this group left the Supreme Court area before the decision was read out. A smaller group of 200-300 University of Indonesia activists and a contingent from the Peoples Democratic Party remained until the decision was read out.
There were physical clashes between the remaining students and the police when students tried to get closer to the Supreme Court building. Reports vary, but it appears more than 40 protesters were injured and around 60 detained.
Protests against the court decision also occurred on the same day in several other cities, including Bandung, Yogyakarta, Kendari, and Surabaya.
The anti-elite sentiment was not only reflected in the protests and statements around the Tanjung decision. Since February 10, there has been another example of the mood of growing rejection of the political elite's arrogance: Thousands of students and teachers in the regency of Kampar, in South Sumatra, have been demonstrating daily demanding the resignation of the local head of the education department.
These protests were in response to the official's reaction to being quizzed about the small allocation of funds to schools in his area. Only 5% of the budget was being allocated when a new constitutional amendment passed recently states that 20% of the budget must be allocated. When repeatedly confronted by a school principal on this question, the official ordered the principal to leave the room.
The demonstrations in Kampar have involved up to 40,000 students and teachers. In the latest demonstration, on February 12, eight people were injured and some protesters were arrested for taking hostage members of the local town council.
Smaller protests around a wide range of social issues and arbitrary acts by state authorities continue to increase in number across Indonesia, but have yet to find a vehicle that can give them national political expression.
The PKS has consistently put forward an Islamic fundamentalist, anti-secular perspective as the answer to the country's problems. It has been able to repeatedly mobilise several thousand students in Jakarta, and on some occasions rallies of hundreds of thousands of kampung residents.
However, it appears to have been stagnant at this level since at least 1998. It is held back by its leadership's constant manoeuvring to keep alliances going with central elite figures such as Amien Rais. Whenever its student groups appear to be picking up momentum as a result of protests against corruption, the PKS leadership pulls them in before the movement can get too big and threaten the elite.
From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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