It is a scandal that reaches into the pockets of virtually every Indonesian adult and may deliver a political earthquake less than a month before residents of Jakarta return to the polls for a second round of voting for governor.

In what is proving to be its most ambitious case to date, Indonesia’s corruption watchdog -- the KPK -- released dozens of names of present and previous politicians from most major parties suspected of siphoning the equivalent of as much as S$268 million (US$191 million) from a program aimed at revamping the country’s identity cards. The effort would make them easier to obtain and renew, while limiting fraud and cutting out corrupt officials seeking bribes along the way.

It didn’t happen. The KPK said it is following up on a list of 38 names -- so far -- including current and former cabinet ministers and the speaker of parliament who took money from a program that hasn’t delivered what was promised. Size and scope of case promises to expose the extent of the rot of Indonesia’s politics. That list may grow to as many as 70 in the coming months, the KPK has said.

“We’ve never seen a case like this before,” says Adnan Husodo, coordinator of Indonesia Corruption Watch.

“This is a basic public service. Politicians think it isn’t their requirement for them to deliver. This will have a huge impact.”

At the heart of the issue is a sky-blue wallet sized ID that every Indonesian from the age of 17 is required to carry. Known as the KTP, short for kartu tanda penduduk, the cards list the usual things: the holder’s name and their birthday. But it’s also more invasive than many IDs. The holder must also list membership in one of the country’s six recognized religions.

Back in 2009 the government of the previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wanted to put the whole service online to rein in duplicate IDs, which were sought by tax evaders. Parliament budgeted about 5.2 trillion rupiah for a new system that would make renewals a thing of the past. One ID number would follow the holder for life, while updates for addresses and other changes could be done online.

Instead, according to KPK charges, roughly half that amount was stolen. And while a card was introduced – a plastic one rather than a laminated piece of paper – its roll out was haphazard. The data for millions was lost. Millions more in smaller centres off the island of Java have been without an ID for months because supplies of the new model have run out. As for that added convenience? Renewals are still mandatory every five years and the notion of online updates are almost science fiction. In many cases the plastic cards themselves that replaced the laminated originals were so flimsy they disintegrated well before their expiry. A nuisance anywhere, but in Indonesia an expensive one if, like many, the holder has moved from a far flung village to the city for work.

“Actually the idea is good but this e-KTP is just useless,” says Hesti Septianita, a 43- year- old lecturer from Bandung, referring to the electronic version of the ID.

“But you still have to bring all your documents and have them checked manually.”

For the KPK, which, at 1200, has a staff smaller than its equivalent in Hong Kong, the case is as fraught as it is massive.

In early 2015 it nearly came undone when it leveled corruption charges against President Joko Widodo’s nominee for police chief. It was unprepared for the backlash. The resulting tit- for- tat war, which put its most senior investigators in jail, forced the KPK to back down.

This time the agency is leaving little to chance. It’s interviewed more than 280 witnesses over three years as it accumulates evidence to build its case. Agus Rahardjo, KPK’s chairman, said his agency is going for the small fry first to build momentum as it moves up the food chain.

“This is a long process,” he told a gathering of foreign correspondents in Jakarta.

“It’s a marathon.”

In the KPK’s sites are potentially the current law and human rights minister, Yasonna Laoly, and parliament’s speaker, Golkar Chairman Setya Novanto. They have not been charged of any crime. Announcing that the senior officials were targets of the investigation tightens the noose in the eyes of the public, Husodo says.

That may take months if not years. In the short term will be the political fall out. After months in which the religious right was sapping most media attention the affair potentially shifts attention back to the issue of corruption, a boon to reformers such as Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama.

Better known as Ahok, the governor faces blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting the Quran in late September.

But Ahok, who served on the parliamentary committee that provided funding for the e-KTP, is on the record as opposing the plan because of the potential for abuse. That the snowballing scandal will be news staple for the rest of Widodo’s five year term in office, corruption may well be the defining issue when voters elect their president in 2019, says Keith Lovard, an analyst with Jakarta-based business risk analysis firm Concord.

“People are genuinely sick of this process,” Lovard says of the ID card procurement debacle.

“If the KPK can bring down the people that are involved with this mess it will be a complete earthquake that could shake up the entire system.”

This piece first appeared in the Business Times of Singapore. Click here for the original