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Jakarta Post

The middleman in Indonesian politics

  • Dominggus Elcid Li

    The Jakarta Post

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara   /   Fri, June 21, 2013   /  09:26 am

Ahmad Fathanah is surrounded with controversy. He has been in the media spotlight for quite some time for his role in the beef import quota scandal, linked to the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Unfortunately, the media have paid too much attention to the women around him, which has overshadowed the destructive impact of the '€œmiddleman'€™s role'€ in graft cases implicating public officials.

The role of middleman in politics is almost unknown and has apparently been ignored in Indonesian social and political science research. The Fathanah case suggests that a middleman is needed to secure transactions that are beneficial to a party.

The new elites and top party leaders today are circled by middlemen. Those who lead the political parties today were also the middlemen. They used to be middlemen during the Soeharto period. Therefore, it comes as no surprise if after a decade Soeharto'€™s aides have returned to dominate Indonesian politics.

The middlemen in Indonesian politics today can be expert staff, aides or party treasurers. Officially, aides or expert staff are low paid but many fight for the jobs as they provide access to political capital and financial benefits. Fathanah has proved that an aide whose official monthly salary is only Rp 3-5 million (US$303-$503) can broker transactions totalling Rp 1.2 trillion.  Access to power holders and good networks are the requirements of middlemen. They have no specific job description, but are able secure transactions through various networks to please their bosses, who could be party leaders, ministers or House of Representatives'€™ members.

Alternative approaches in social studies could be used to explain the role of middlemen in corruption. One of the approaches is social network analysis (SNA) and/or network theory, which may address the research gap. Conventional approaches can hardly explain a complex network of political transactions. In addition, understanding the complex relations of politicians and their middlemen and private firms is very important in corruption advocacy.

Using SNA to unveil the network of middlemen in political parties and public institutions should top priorities in fighting corruption. Today, such a network remains free to operate and is untouchable. This is a paradox.  

In the light of network theory, the role of the middleman as a hub can be measured and visualized. It may reveal the fact that the true powerful actors in Indonesia may not be the top party leaders, ministers or politicians but instead their middlemen. Some middlemen who transform themselves into leaders such as Muhamamad Nazaruddin, have proved themselves as powerful agents (or vital hubs) as they play multi-level corruption games. Nazaruddin and Fathanah have shown the power of middlemen in fundraising but at the same time they placed political parties in jeopardy once their actions were detected.

According to Barabasi ( 2003 ), who studied the complex network system, those who serve as the hub dominate the whole structure and network. Thus, it is no surprise that the impact of the beef import scandal involving Fathanah as the middleman of former PKS chairman Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq has shocked the party. The paradox is, while the party'€™s elites deny Fathanah'€™s role, the impact of the case on the party is devastating.

Indonesian politics today is dominated by middlemen who were active during the New Order.

They cemented their grip on political systems with their complex corruption networks. They have also recruited capable middlemen that may have gone through an '€œinternal test'€ of loyalty. Usually, those who work as middlemen are not new faces or outsiders.

Internally, political parties should control the existence of middlemen if they intend to eliminate corruption. They need to map out the minority powerful elites, including their middlemen. Internal control is important in reducing the infiltration of mafia networks into the party or other public institutions.

We suggest that political parties support and uphold transparency and accountability. All political parties will need cash to win elections, but not through middlemen as they are not recognized by the lay public. Otherwise, the elites will have to be prepared for the worst case scenario when the corruption committed by their middlemen is detected.

Here is another paradox of middlemen: they are said to be very powerful during the transaction, but are not the '€œtrump card'€ controlling the final call. In reverse, the middlemen are the risk takers. The good news is that while they are very powerful, the middlemen are merely nodes designed to be cut off from the parties'€™ links once their corruption plot is unveiled.

The state of '€œcash democracy'€ has been in place since the reform movement began rolling in 1998. All the political parties share the same corruption culture.

Today, all of the state institutions in Indonesia have their own middlemen who are interconnected and reduce the public to becoming part of an anarchic market.

If the media shifts its focus from Fathanah'€™s women to shed some light on the role of middlemen, there is hope for the country in its war on corruption.
The writer is a researcher at IRGSC in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara.

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