Defending our money: A lesson from Ahok

Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama sent a different version of the capital’s public budget to the Home Minister for approval. Ahok did not send the City Council (DPRD) version because expenses of Rp 12 trillion (US$930 million), which an official dubbed dana siluman (sneaky budget), were included in the budget without his consent, he said.

In the budget deliberation the governor alleged that the council inserted many programs without proper planning and comprehensive information, by cutting 10 to 15 percent from other well-planned programs.

In retaliation the council raised its right of inquiry (hak angket), which theoretically can lead to impeachment. Actually, this is a common practice in the budgeting process at the national and local levels.

People and government units often receive goods and services that differ with their requests or are even useless. What makes the latest Jakarta case special is because Ahok is fighting openly while other mayors, regents and governors tend to solve such conflicts behind closed doors.

A public budget is different from a household or corporation budget, particularly given the involvement of many parties in the budget process. Every citizen can be involved in the budget planning through participatory development deliberation or Musyawarah Perencanaan Pembangunan (Musrenbang), organized at the village, subdistrict, regency or municipality, province and national level.

At the same time, the government bureaucracy organizes a similar process in all public service units and government institutions. The education ministry or education office at the local levels, for instance, organizes budget planning annually by collecting input from schools, teachers and lower education offices on what the government has to spend in the next budget year. Indonesia’s fiscal year runs from January to December and the budgeting process formally starts in January of the previous year.

However, the public budget is not only a document listing government expenses. It is an arena of political contestation among various interests in government and society to decide the budget’s top priorities. Since revenue is likely lower than spending, priorities need to be decided — which programs should be financed or delayed to the next year.

The contestation involves ordinary citizens, mass organizations, political parties, the national and local bureaucracies and politicians. In the end, the public budget is the outcome of political compromise at the city, regency, province and national level.

The budgeting process is closely related to corruption and rent-seeking. The government can design a particular project to be funded but in the end it could easily enrich their business cronies and particular interests. The policy to formulate development priorities to be funded by the public budget can favor certain business groups. In return, businesses can contribute political funding to policy makers in government or legislative bodies. In other cases, businesspeople could run for office themselves and then allocate projects for their own interests.

Ahok’s struggle to save the public budget is a real fight against corruption in the nation’s capital. As an example, the council has allocated a huge amount of funds to buy uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) for schools and government offices. Jakarta’s officials say they had never planned to buy UPS units as it was not considered the real need of schools and government offices.

If the City Council version of the public budget is accepted, the Jakarta government would not only have to buy UPS at a very expensive price, the units would be useless. The Governor thus suspects the budget allocation to buy UPS and other items are for marked up prices, higher than the normal market price. However, we need further investigation to identify all interests and all suspected useless facilities.

Ahok happens to be the first governor fighting openly against the council on the budget issue with the consequence of impeachment. Fortunately, the impeachment procedure for a governor is not easy; it requires presidential approval.

Many provinces are late to submit their public budget to the Home Ministry; municipalities and regencies also often hand in their budgets late for the governors’ approval. This reflects clear evidence of the contestation in the formulation of government budgets.

The Home Minister can issue a regulation to withhold salaries of governors, regents, mayors and also local councilors until the public budget is sent. Public servants and government expenses can be disbursed but the longer process to formulate the public budget will obviously delay government programs.

Nevertheless, the conflict between Ahok and the council gives an important lesson to us. The conflict is expected because the budget is a site of power contestation. Today’s conflict is all about how Governor Ahok defends public resources from the predatory interest of the City Council — if his allegations prove true.

On the contrary, we should suspect a smooth process of public budget deliberation. If there is no conflict between competing interests, citizens should worry about collusion between the executive and legislative branches in looting public resources. Jakarta has to bear the high costs of the current conflict, particularly the delay of development programs.

But letting predatory interests steal the public budget without resistance is tantamount to welcoming robbers into our home.

Ahok is teaching us a real lesson to defend our money and to fight corruption.

J. Danang Widoyoko, Canberra | Opinion | Sat, March 07 2015, 8:05 AM

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