Fears of abuse as ministers allowed to campaign ‘on leave’

Election observers have raised concerns that allowing ministers running for elected office to take leave, rather than resigning, could lead to ethical violations and abuses of power.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (center left) and Vice President Ma'ruf Amin (center right) walk hand-in-hand prior to a photo session with members of their new cabinet on the steps of the State Palace in Jakarta on Oct. 23, 2019. PHOTO: AFP/ THE JAKARTA POST

September 15, 2023

JAKARTA – Election observers have raised concerns that allowing ministers running for elected office to take leave, rather than resigning, could lead to ethical violations and abuses of power, following President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to allow cabinet ministers to run as candidates in the upcoming presidential election without requiring them to resign.

On Monday, the President told reporters that he would let any presidential or vice-presidential candidate retain their ministerial positions, as long as they took leave of absence when campaigning.

Several ministers within the cabinet are expected to run in the 2024 election, such as Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto who has declared his intention to run as a presidential candidate.

Other ministers, such as State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) Minister Erick Thohir and Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno have also been eyed by various parties as vice-presidential candidates.

“The most important thing is that they don’t use government facilities,” Jokowi said. “Our bureaucratic system is advanced enough. […] Of course, I will allow them.”

The decision was in contrast to the 2019 election, when ministers were required to resign their offices before campaigning, according to the 2017 Elections Law.

But the Constitutional Court ruled last year in favor of a judicial review proposing a change to the law, which allows cabinet ministers and other high-ranking officials in the government to retain their positions even if they wish to run for election.

The current version of the Elections Law gives cabinet ministers up to a year of leave starting from the date of their official candidacy, as long as the president approves their request for leave.

General Elections Commission (KPU) commissioner Idham Holik said the President had full authority to grant leave for ministers running as candidates in the upcoming elections. The commission is deliberating how long these individuals should take leave for throughout the election process.

“The important thing is a minister must secure leave of absence from the President once he registers as candidate with us,” Idham said last week as quoted by kompas.id.

Not fair for all candidates

Despite Jokowi’s confidence that there will not be any conflicts of interest, election watchdogs have warned that the premise of a minister part-timing their presidential campaigns was an ethically precarious one.

“If these ministers who are also candidates are going to take regular periods of leave and, say, only work two to three days a week, they should just resign already. Don’t hinder state business,” said Hadar Nafis Gumay of the Network for Democracy and Electoral Integrity.

Indonesia’s bureaucratic system may not be mature enough to have the country’s top officials temporarily abandoning their posts, Hadar added.

Even if they refrain from taking too much leave, continuing business as usual might compromise their ministries’ neutrality, said Khoirunnisa Agustyati, executive director of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem).

“For instance, what happens when ministers travel across the country for their ministerial duties, but use the occasion to subtly promote their presidential programs?” Khoirunnisa said. “Their subordinates would have to work on these programs or risk their careers.”

Some ministers might already have been taking advantage of their positions to talk about their visions even before the official campaigning started, Hadar said.

Khoirunnisa pointed out on one minister who had been observed using their position to promote their championed legislative candidate during a working visit, promising cheaper cooking oil prices.

In July, Trade Minister Zulkifli Hasan, who is also chair of the National Mandate Party (PAN), became a subject of criticism when he was seen distributing discounted cooking oil to promote his daughter’s legislative bid. He promised that such a giveaway would be a monthly occasion if she won the election.

Both Hadar and Khoirunnisa pointed out that it would take a lot of effort to ensure ministerial facilities, ranging from their security details to government vehicles, would only be used when the candidates were not campaigning.

If the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) fails to flag these malpractices, the election’s fairness would be put at risk, given that not all candidates would have access to such facilities, they warned.

Bawaslu was not immediately available for comment about its prospective supervisory mechanisms.

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