JAKARTA -- Indonesian local governments are confronting widespread graft that appears to be worsening despite President Joko Widodo's campaign against corruption, with leaders turning to lucrative licensing powers to fill heavy funding needs.
Eighteen local government officials -- including two provincial governors -- have been arrested since January on bribery and other charges, according to the Corruption Eradication Commission. That is the most since the 2003 founding of the independent investigative body, known as the KPK by its Indonesian initials.
"Every month, every week, someone is caught red-handed and arrested," Widodo has said.
There are concerns that if left unchecked, the problem could negatively impact investment from overseas.
Indonesia has over 500 local governments, with 34 provinces which contain cities and regencies. Those localities have gained more powers in democratic reforms following the 1998 resignation of authoritarian president Suharto after three decades in power, largely in response to the overconcentration of power in the hands of Suharto's government.
Localities now receive a large share of the revenue from natural resources they produce, such as oil and gas, and hold the authority to grant development licenses for infrastructure and resources. Central government grants to localities have increased more than 30% since Widodo took office in 2014 to 766 trillion rupiah ($52.8 billion) in the 2018 budget.
Many scandals have stemmed from officials cashing in on such authority, such as through taking bribes in return for development licenses. The governor of Aceh Province, on the north end of the island of Sumatra, was arrested July 4 on suspicion of accepting cash from local officials in return for granting infrastructure development rights within the province.
Widodo, as governor of Jakarta campaigning for the Indonesian presidency, promised to wipe out government corruption, an approach that won the support of a public heavily disapproving of such misbehavior. The common practice of police officers, customs and immigration workers and other officials seeking small bribes -- usually the equivalent of less than $10 -- for convenient treatment has apparently dwindled during his tenure.
Yet the problem appears to be worsening at the regional government level, with 50-plus top officials arrested this far into the Widodo era.
The cost of running for office is seen as a main driver of the graft. A provincial gubernatorial campaign is seen as requiring a war chest to the tune of millions of dollars to cover such expenses as paying staffers. There is a widespread belief that the roots of corruption cannot be pulled up without reforming the campaign system to be less costly.
Political talk has emerged of limiting the KPK's power, stirring fears that the anti-corruption campaign could falter. The commission, which can tap communications without a warrant, has too much power and needs oversight, the argument goes. But with legislators among those embroiled in graft cases, there is suspicion that they are simply trying to avoid getting caught.
Indonesia ranked 96th among 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, worsening from No. 90 in 2016.