Sexy Models and Big Bribes Fuel Indonesia's Imported Beef Scandal

The beef-gate scandal rocking Indonesia for the past four months proves yet again that the best way to stir up media interest in politics is a mix of money, photogenic women and hypocrisy in high places.

The scandal kicked off in January with the raid of a Jakarta hotel room by anti-corruption officials. In the room was a naked female college student, a suitcase stuffed with a billion rupiah ($103,000) and Ahmad Fathanah, an aide to Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, chairman of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). It turned out the money was to have been handed over to Luthfi.

What gave that combination political sizzle is the fact that Luthfi’s PKS is known for having once advocated turning Indonesia into a fundamentalist Muslim state. In the last general election in 2009 PKS had campaigned on fighting corruption and enforcing personal morality. Among the ills it sought to ban are short skirts and public kissing. It is currently the nation’s fourth largest party after Indonesians resoundingly rejected turning their constitution-based secular nation into a religious one.

An additional dose of irony is provided by the fact that the bribe money came from a local company seeking a bigger piece of the government quota for importing beef, mostly from Australia.

The raid led to the resignation of Luthfi who became a prime target of the anti-corruption body, along with another top PKS leader, the one-named Suswono who, as agriculture minister, actually assigns beef quotas. So far Suswono hasn’t been charged, but the probe continues to expand.

What has helped keep beef-gate on the front pages is the links the probe has turned up to sexy women. In addition to the unknown 19-year-old student who had been given 10 million rupiah ($1,003), Armad and his lavish gifts were traced to popular swimsuit models and soft-core porn actresses Ayu Azhari and Vitalia Shesya. The gifts included cars, jewelry and envelopes stuffed with 10 million rupiah. The two women have cooperated with investigators, returned the gifts, and are no longer considered suspects.

The number of women who had been given money by Ahmad is thought to number about 20 over the past several years. Ahmad seems to have been a kind of free-agent operator who sought to use political connections as a way to afford himself a lavish lifestyle filled with frequent assignations with young women, according to testimony from his driver. PKS has sought to distance itself from Ahmad by characterizing him as a criminal who had no formal ties to the party. But he has become a valuable digging tool for investigators who continue to root out PKS leaders with apparent ties to corruption.

The scandal is expected to further weaken Indonesia’s fundamentalist muslim politicians who have been gradually losing the influence that reached its zenith in the first half of the past decade. Increasingly they are seen as having sought to exploit Islam for personal aggrandizement and gain rather than as a way to strengthen the society.