By Kanupriya Kapoor and Randy Fabi
JAKARTA (Reuters) - The new chief of Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission plans to strike back at forces trying to undermine the agency's powers after a year of crippling attacks by police and politicians in one of Asia's most graft-plagued nations.
"Last year we were severely weakened, but now we are back to full force," Agus Rahardjo told Reuters late on Thursday in his first interview with foreign media since taking over the reins in January of the body best known as the KPK.
Rahardjo said the agency was determined to pursue the so-called "oil and gas mafia", which wields influence over energy sector officials and is among the vested interests hampering President Joko Widodo's efforts to open the economy to competition.
The agency was once a formidable force against graft in Southeast Asia's largest economy, but was brought to its knees last year, when a long-running rivalry with the police force burst into the open and three of its key personnel were arrested.
Many had hoped that Widodo, who promised during his 2014 presidential campaign to stamp out corruption and make Indonesia more investor-friendly, would back the popular agency.
Instead, he was largely silent as the agency's work ground to a halt. It made only five arrests in 2015, around half its annual average.
While many hope new leadership will turn around that track record, the agency now faces a fresh battle against politicians. Along with the police, members of parliament are often targeted by the KPK.
Lawmakers have proposed revisions to the law that governs the agency, looking to scrap its surveillance powers and allow a parliamentary body to end graft investigations when it chooses.
If passed, the new measure will probably hamper the agency's ambitious goals, which include making at least 12 arrests this year, Rahardjo said, adding that it would target the food, energy, and infrastructure sectors.
"The new law will make it impossible to make arrests," he said. Rahardjo threatened to resign if the legislation was enacted.
Complaints over the perceived threat from parliament this week prompted Widodo to ask lawmakers to suspend deliberations.
"It is a form of support," Rahardjo said of Widodo's move.
However, critics say he has only kicked the can down the road and point to his handling of the KPK-police rift last year as evidence that he is not bold enough to fight corruption and take on powerful vested interests within his ruling coalition.
"Jokowi cannot make a quick decision to back up the KPK because at the same time he also has to consider political pressure from his own political party," said Adnan Topan Husodo of Indonesia Corruption Watch.
Indonesia consistently ranks among the most corrupt states in the world, according to Transparency International, though it climbed 19 places this year to rank 88th out of 168 countries.
Graft still pervades almost every aspect of life and is seen as a costly deterrent to foreign investment. Headline-grabbing arrests will not be enough to fight that, Rahardjo said.
"One thing the KPK hasn't pushed is trying to make a lasting and wider impact on corrupt systems," he said. "We will continue to go after the big fish, but it's important that we push for the change to be sustainable."
Anti-graft activists believe, however, that the agency will struggle to root corruption out of the system.
"I don't think the KPK will continue to work on fighting against corruption optimally when there is no political support to this institution," Husodo said.
(Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez)