By: Our Correspondent

After weeks of silence, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has come out swinging in the controversy over an alleged bribe request to the Freeport McMoRan mining giant by House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto, denying that Setya’s bribe request had anything to do with him.

In sensational allegations, the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Sudirman Said on Nov. 17 released a voice recording to the public in which Setya appeared to use the name of the president and that of Vice President Jusuf Kalla in requesting 20 percent of the shares in Freeport’s Grasberg mining operations, which must be divested under the terms of the extension of Freeport’s renewed mining contract of work.

Present at the June meeting, besides Setya, were oil and gas tycoon Muhammad Riza Chalid, one of the country’s richest and most powerful businessmen, and Maroef Sjamsoeddin, the president director of Freeport’s Indonesia unit.

Setya has denied he used the president’s name, turning the affair into a confrontation between some members of Jokowi’s own cabinet and Sudirman, who is considered to be incorruptible.  Setya has refused to step down from his position despite growing calls to do so. The allegations have set off a huge controversy in Jakarta. At stake is not just the multi-billion dollar future of one of the world’s biggest copper and gold-mining assets but possibly the future of Jokowi’s government and his credentials as a supposed reformer.

The president has now broken his silence, saying on Dec. 7 in regard to a House of Representatives ethics council hearing into the veracity of the tape that while he respected the council’s process, he was firmly opposed to institutions of the state being misused.  Two previous open hearings have been turned into a free-for-all of attacks on Sudirman by lawmakers from Golkar – Setya’s party – and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), headed by Jokowi’s backer Megawati Sukarnoputri.

“I am okay being called a crazy president or stubborn president. But if it relates to integrity, (allegedly) asking for an 11 percent share, I don’t want that,” he told local media. “This is a matter of appropriateness, ethics, morality and the state’s dignity.” 

There has been considerable suspicion that Sudirman released the tape publicly with Jokowi’s backing, since Sudirman and the president cut out much of the political establishment to settle the Freeport contract in October, to considerable anger because it denied many an enormous chance at enrichment.

Thus confusion has been rising over the president’s silence, a reminder of almost a year spent since he took office in which he appeared often to be drifting. He has neither openly backed his energy minister nor sided with his coordinating security minister Luhut Panjaitan, a close aide who has been at odds with Sudirman for months, although his denial of participation in a bribe attempts is now regarded as siding with Sudirman.

The scandal has been called Indonesia’s biggest in recent history, a tall order in a country saddled with deep corruption. It has split the political community into two camps – one of which is reportedly using economic nationalism as an excuse to loot lucrative multinational contracts such as that of the Phoenix, Arizona mining company, the other side reformists represented by figures such as Sudirman. In that sense, the confrontation over the Freeport contract could almost be regarded as bigger than Jokowi’s presidency, since it has the potential to change the way business is done in Indonesia and do away with rent-seeking which has plagued the country for decades.

Setya has swerved in several directions over the tape, saying at one point that he was only joking in the conversation with Maroef, who made the recording on his cellphone. The embattled house speaker requested a closed hearing of the ethics council in the face of public demands for an open one, claiming behind closed doors that he had done nothing wrong, and that in fact the recording was illegal.  He is said to have defended himself and said his conduct was in the best interests of Indonesia’s investment climate. Maroef has countered that his cellphone view was in full view of the parties and that they were fully aware that the conversation was being recorded

In the meantime the independent news organization Tempo.co reported that Setya’s home was a massive 1,600 sq. m, four-floor mansion featuring an elevator. Each of the four floors has a different function, according to the Tempo story, each said to be luxuriously fitted, lending obvious questions to his essential probity.