Indonesian minister’s arrest sparks rush to find replacement

The arrest has also revived rumours of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle, as the rift between NasDem and the ruling coalition grows ever wider.

Yerica Lai

Yerica Lai

The Jakarta Post


Communications and Information Minister Johnny G. Plate is arrested on corruption charges on May 17.(Antara/Reno Esnir)

May 22, 2023

JAKARTA – The arrest of communications and information minister Johnny G. Plate on corruption charges this week has sparked fresh calls by politicians for a Cabinet reshuffle, with at least one media mogul prepared to fill the newly vacant post amid a rush to influence the selection of a successor.

Johnny’s arrest and indictment by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) on Wednesday set off a flurry of speculation over who would replace him and whether his party, NasDem, would be ousted from the ruling coalition amid a tense relationship between chairman Surya Paloh and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ahead of next year’s general election.

Johnny is a senior member of NasDem, a tenuously pro-government party that has announced its support for opposition figure and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan’s 2024 presidential bid. Anies, who consistently places among the top three presidential candidates in opinion polls, is the strongest contender to come out of opposition circles.

The President said on Friday that he had appointed Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD to temporarily take over the post but did not comment on his preferred replacement.

“What is clear is that the AGO will undoubtedly be professional and open about everything to do with the case,” he told reporters shortly before leaving for the Group of Seven Summit in Japan.

“We have to respect the proper legal process,” Jokowi said.

Among those being talked up as the next communications minister is media tycoon and United Indonesia Party (Perindo) chairman Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who supported Jokowi’s reelection bid in 2019. Hary was seen meeting privately with Jokowi two days before Johnny’s arrest, in what was his second visit to Merdeka Palace this year.

Perindo central board executive Heri Budianto said on Thursday that the appointment would be entirely up to the President and that his party “would be prepared if entrusted” with the vacant ministerial position.

“Let’s just wait until the President decides,” Heri told reporters in Jakarta.

Crumbling partnership

Johnny was arrested after a three-hour interrogation by the assistant attorney general for extraordinary crimes over his involvement in a corruption case related to the procurement of base transceiver stations (BTS) for a government 4G telephony project. He joins five other suspects in the case, which is thought to have resulted in some Rp 8 trillion (US$538 million) in state losses.

His arrest – a foregone conclusion, according to some political insiders – has revived rumors of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle, as the rift between NasDem and the ruling coalition, led by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), grows ever wider.

Some members of the coalition, such as the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), have called outright for NasDem ministers to quit or be removed from the Cabinet. They have also appealed to Jokowi to announce a replacement and described the arrest as an “opportunity for a reshuffle”.

Jokowi himself hinted at the possibility of cutting NasDem out of the Cabinet on Monday, after excluding the party from a recent coalition leaders’ meeting at Merdeka Palace. He later acknowledged that NasDem, while still part of his Cabinet, was no longer on his side.

Bawono Kumoro, a political researcher at pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia, said Johnny’s graft charges might just provide the impetus for a Cabinet shake-up, which could potentially see other NasDem-affiliated ministers get sacked.

“Previously, the President appeared to be cautious, as he did not have any relevant political rhyme or reason to reshuffle his Cabinet,” Bawono told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

“If, in the coming days, the President reshuffles the ministerial posts held by NasDem, the public is likely to be more understanding of the decision,” Bawono added.

Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo and Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar are the only members of NasDem remaining in the Cabinet.

Speaking at a press conference after Johnny’s arrest, NasDem patron Surya said he would not be nominating a replacement for the communications minister position, a highly influential post. Surya maintained that the decision was Jokowi’s own to make.

“If we are consistent about this being the prerogative of the President, then why would we put forward [a candidate]?” Surya said at NasDem Tower in Central Jakarta. “We would be fools to propose a replacement without being asked by the President.”

In spite of the grief he expressed over Johnny’s arrest, Surya said he would try his best to remain faithful to the Jokowi administration. He also said he hoped there wasn’t more to the arrest of NasDem’s secretary-general than what was let on.

“We will respect [the legal process], but it is hard to get rid of what I have been feeling. Hopefully, any temptation to believe that this incident can be seen as a political intervention isn’t true,” the media mogul said.

NasDem would not be expelling Johnny from its ranks, Surya noted in a separate statement, adding that he had appointed party executive Hermawi Taslim to temporarily take over the role of NasDem secretary-general.

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