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Military ambition in Indonesia's presidential politics

Indonesian society must decide whether democratic reforms will continue to strengthen civilian governance in the face of persistant interference from the nation's military in the upcoming presidential election. 

Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi
4 April 2014
A group of civil, military, and police personnel are walking during an anniversary ceremony

Indonesian civil, military, and police officials attend the 66th anniversary ceremony of the Indonesian armed forces

Heading into the 2014 presidential election, Indonesian society is being faced with certain political figures, ranging from businessmen and office holders, to military background figures. Given many poll surveys, however, two prominent figures have emerged as the most likely contenders to be the next Indonesian president, namely Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. Joko Widodo, affectionately known as Jokowi, is Jakarta’s current governor, whereas Prabowo is the chief patron of the Greatest Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) as well as a former general under the late President Haji Muhammad Suharto. Recently, Jokowi has been announced as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) candidate. Thus, Governor Jokowi and former military general, Prabowo, will likely dominate the Indonesian political landscape prior to the presidential election in September 2014.

After fifteen years of democratic consolidation, the big inquiry is whether Indonesia still needs military-style leadership. In the last three general elections, military candidates have always been involved in running for political office. The current president is a former Suharto general who has been in office for two terms. In the upcoming 2014 election, at least two former generals have announced their candidacies beside Prabowo, namely former Indonesian military commander Wiranto, who is supported by his party, the People's Conscience Party (Hanura) and Sutiyoso, retired army lieutenant general cum Chairman of the Indonesian Justice and Unity Party (PKPI). The ruling party, the Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat), is also presenting former army chief of staff Pramono Edhie Wibowo as one of its presidential candidates. All of these generals, except Pramono Edhie Wibowo, served during Suharto’s waning days. And these three generals are also widely believed to have been involved in human rights violations.

Ironically, on the one hand, Indonesian society is hoping to have clean and good leaders, such as Jokowi and Tri Rismaharini, the mayor of Surabaya. On the other hand, as a recent survey shows, many Indonesian voters still prefer a presidential or vice presidential candidate with a military background. Three characteristics have been advanced for this preference: decisiveness, discipline and firmness. This tendency exemplifies the romance of the Suharto-backed military regime among Indonesians.

The military in Indonesia has two prominent justifications for having to meddle in daily political life. First, the Indonesian military (TNI) is still dubious about the current democratic system. As argued by Indonesia’s army strategic command head, Lieutenant General Gatot Nurmantyo, democracy is not always right for Indonesia. Accordingly, democracy based on the popular vote does not always lead to the strengthening of the nation. For some political analysts, this is only the view of a hard-line faction within the TNI which wants to push for more military involvement in Indonesia’s daily politics.

Second, the TNI has grave doubts about the ability of civilian governments to govern. Corruption and immorality have become chronic diseases in the civilian government. As a result, certain political regulations can risk national stabilization, such as the current dispute over the legitimacy of Law No. 42/2008 on presidential and vice presidential elections. As former army intelligence head, Soleman B. Ponto argues, the potential for 'national chaos' is high, given that the law was dismissed by the constitutional court in January 2014. If such a 'national chaos' were to develop, the military has already warned that it will launch what Ponto calls a ‘constitutional coup’.

 During my interview in 2012 with former Vice Chief Staff of Army, retired Major General Kiki Syahnakri, he expressed the same concern. He thought that the quality of civilian government was degrading for all, and he intended to take political steps necessary for returning to the original version of the 1945 constitution. To support his idea, Kiki and his colleagues in the Retired Army Association (PPAD) proposed forming a ‘national council’. This would allow the military to legitimately engage directly in politics. These statements rremind us of the military’s relentless tendency to take any opportunity to influence and even to take over the civilian government.

Democracy allows for every individual, regardless of their background, to run for office. However, after the downfall of authoritarianism and the beginning of democratic consolidation, the remnants of a former authoritarian regime, including the military, should be restricted from participating in politics. The former regime was highly bolstered by the military in Indonesia during the new order period for over thirty years. This history is not easily shed: the desire of the military to re-engage with the new political system is still strong. If it does, the military is likely to bring back with them an authoritarian spirit, such as we see in Egypt and Thailand.

According to the Indonesian constitution, military figures can run for office after resigning from active duty. Nevertheless, the close relations between former officers and active-duty officers are difficult to overlook. Former officers support the core interests of their institution. This again raises the question of the future of the TNI’s reformation that has stalled during the second term of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Three crucial areas of the TNI’s internal reform could be ‘blocked’ by former senior officers if they get elected.

First and foremost is the promotion and inculcation of human rights values among officers. The TNI has been globally known for its negative human rights record toward its own people. The military’s internal reforms failed to deal with this issue, particularly in Papua province. The military candidates are likely to defend their former institution. For instance, the Cebongan prison raid by army special forces (Kopassus) that killed four detainees drew support and even praise from Prabowo and other former generals, including SBY. In addition, Pramono Edhie Wibowo recently called on Indonesians to forget the past violations of human rights committed by the TNI.

The second area of army reform which might be left undone is the reorganization or even liquidation of some army territorial command posts across the country. Many territorial commands at the regional level have been widely alleged to be used for political and economic purposes. As a leading general during the early days of TNI’s reformation, Wiranto supported and defended the existence of these commands. At the present day, there are no military candidates who have questioned these commands in light of charges of misuse for political purpose and human rights violations.

The third area of much-needed military reform is the management of its businesses, particularly the illegal ones, such as illegal logging, gambling, and the security business. It will be hard to tackle this issue if some former generals get elected in September, given the fact that the military still highly depends on these off-budget resources.

Given the uncertainty at the national level, Indonesian democracy will arguably allow the military figures to continue in their role as decisive political actors as has always been the case for the duration of the new order. In contrast, after the era of authoritarian military regimes, some Latin American countries have produced many strong populist leaders, such as Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Evo Morales in Bolivia. These figures can restrict, constitutionally, military ambition in their countries. They can channel people’s aspirations more effectively into supporting government policies, instead of paving the way for the military to get a second opportunity to govern.

Indonesian politics has never got itself out from under military influence, and populist leaders such as Jokowi and Risma also appear to rely on military support. As a result, the future of the Indonesian democratic system remains profoundly uncertain.

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