Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (25 of 40)

Chinese Tycoons Place Their Bets
By Eugene Low
The Straits Times (Tuesday, June 15, 2004)

They are aligning themselves with presidential candidates, who also want them to help finance costly campaigns

The cukongs (wealthy Indonesian businessmen) are back in force.

Business tycoons in Indonesia are aligning themselves with key presidential candidates, who are also out to woo them for financial backing.

Campaigning in such a large country is an expensive business, say political observers. Each candidate needs hundreds of billions of rupiah to ensure that his or her campaign machinery runs smoothly.

A portion of the money is spent on expensive television advertising, said a close aide of one candidate.

But the bulk of the funds is said to be used to help sway voters.

Transparency International Indonesia alleged last week that all five candidates were engaged in money politics by handing out free basic commodities, medical services and transportation.

Wealthy businessmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with the political elite offer a ready source of funds for presidential hopefuls mounting a major charm offensive across the sprawling archipelago.

The sums of money changing hands are huge, with some donations amounting to more than tens of billions of rupiah.

And with the outcome of the election still anybody's guess, the tycoons are hedging their bets. Many are said to support more than one candidate.

An analyst said: 'The businessmen don't know which one is the winning horse. So it is safety first - they are putting their eggs in several baskets.'

Should their candidate win, the tycoons will expect some returns - either in the form of preferential access to lucrative government contracts or policies that help their businesses.

Tycoon Tomy Winata, for instance, is rumoured to be supporting Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as well as Mr Wiranto, although both candidates have denied it.

Lippo Group chief executive James Riady and the Gajah Tunggal group's Sjamsul Nursalim are also said to be backing several candidates.

The talk is that Mr Bambang, Mr Wiranto and President Megawati Sukarnoputri all have close links with Chinese businessmen.

Welcome to the muddy waters of campaign funding in Indonesia, where the rumour mill churns out plenty of grist.

The problem is a lack of transparency when it comes to reporting the sources of campaign funds, political observers told The Straits Times.

Earlier this month, an Indonesian anti-corruption commission announced the wealth of the five pairs of candidates in a bid to improve accountability.

The richest among them is vice-presidential candidate Jusuf Kalla, with a total wealth of 122.7 billion rupiah (S$23 million), according to figures announced by the Commission for the Eradication of Corruption.

The General Elections Commission (KPU) also requires candidates to report where their campaign donations come from. However, the rules tend not to be followed strictly.

'Under-reporting is common and even if a report is filed, it is usually not very detailed,' said a source.

'Some donations are also hard to trace because they are given in cash.'

Does the resurgent political influence of the cukongs signal a return to the cronyism of the Suharto era?

Political observers believe that cronyism was never really eradicated, even after the resignation of former president Suharto.

The tycoons are said to have always maintained their relations with the government and key political players.

Salim Group's Liem Sioe Liong, for example, began forging ties with Mrs Megawati when she was still vice-president.

Others have also done the same, including timber baron Prajogo Pangestu, property developer Ciputra and textile king Marimuthu Srinivasan.

But thanks to a free press and more political competition, the situation has improved, an analyst said.

'In the past, you could do things openly. Now, it has become more sophisticated and subtle.'

Still, there is a need for greater transparency and for the KPU to better enforce its rules, said political observer Andi Malarangeng.

'Campaign funding is normal in any democracy, but it should be made clear who funds whom,' he said.

'The funding limits should also be respected to make sure that the president is not indebted to only a few rich businessmen.'

No comments: