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Indonesia’s next leader will be challenged in asserting civilian control over the military because President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has eroded civil authority during his tenure and undermined reforms instituted since 1998, a new report says.

Jokowi has allowed the armed forces to expand their influence and roles in civilian affairs since he took office in 2014, according to a report released by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta think-tank.

The current president, who is due to leave office after the 2024 general election because of term limits, has relied on the military’s support for his political agenda and infrastructure projects, IPAC reported.

“Jokowi’s apparent comfort with the military did not stem from any desire to return Indonesia to quasi-military control,” said the report titled “Civil-military relations in Indonesia after Jokowi.”

“Rather, in his first term, he needed advice on affairs of state, and he needed to expand his political coalition beyond his party, PDIP,” for which he used the armed forces, the report added.

Jokowi relied on the military to advance his infrastructure and investment projects, and create a loyal network beyond the influence of PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who often treated him as a minor functionary of her party machine, not as president, IPAC said. 

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy and the most populous Muslim-majority nation. It has a history of military involvement in politics, with human rights abuses rife during President Suharto’s 32-year rule, which ended in 1998.

Since then, Indonesia has undergone a series of reforms to limit the military’s role in politics and governance, but some analysts say those reforms have stalled or reversed under Jokowi.

IPAC’s report said Jokowi, during his tenure, has diminished these reforms, eroding civilian authority over the military in a variety of areas.

He has allowed more active-duty officers to take civilian jobs, and appointed retired officers as members of his cabinet or inner circle, the report said.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is a former Army special forces commander who served under autocratic Indonesian leader Suharto, and his predecessor, Ryamizard Ryacudu, is a former Army chief.

Jokowi has also given the armed forces more tasks outside its core function, IPAC said in its report. Human rights groups have alleged that military personnel were involved in intimidating people in land disputes, for example. 

The current president has also enlarged the military’s regional command system, the report said. 

In May, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dudung Abdurachman said the military wanted to establish 23 new regional commands to improve the army’s responsiveness to emergencies or threats. 

Prabowo and the military chief backed the plan, he said.

And Jokowi has neglected to closely examine military spending and purchasing processes, the report added.

IPAC: Perils of a Prabowo presidency

Meanwhile, Jokowi’s political interests have often aligned with the military’s institutional interests and the personal ambitions of Prabowo, who is now a frontrunner for the 2024 presidential election, IPAC’s report said.

Prabowo, who was accused of human rights violations during his time in the military, poses the biggest danger for civil-military relations were he to win the Feb. 14 election, the IPAC report said.

For his part, Prabowo has denied any wrongdoing and said he was a victim of political persecution. He ran against Jokowi twice in presidential elections in 2014 and 2019, but lost both times. He joined Jokowi’s cabinet as part of a power-sharing deal after the last election.

Prabowo has no interest in civilian control and would try to dominate the military and the Defense Ministry with his loyalists, and assert his own foreign policy agenda without regard for the Foreign Ministry, the report said. 

Indonesia already got a glimpse of that possibility during the Shangri-La Dialogue international security forum in Singapore in June, when he strayed from Jakarta’s line on Ukraine.

The report noted that none of the other declared candidates for the 2024 election – former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan and Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo – have shown any inclination to challenge the military’s expanding role and influence.

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto salutes to an honor guard during a visit to Malaysia’s Ministry of Defense in Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 14, 2019. [AP]

And while the military remains a popular institution among Indonesians, it is also a frustrated one, due to its rivalry with the police over internal security and Jokowi’s appointment of former police officers to key posts.

This frustration, IPAC said, could lead to military pressure on the new president, which could undermine democratic reforms and civilian supremacy.

The IPAC report said civilian oversight mechanisms of the military and the Defense Ministry must be strengthened. The most effective check on military power will come from the national parliament and a strong political opposition, it added.

Muhamad Haripin, a researcher with the National Research and Innovation Agency, said Indonesia should implement objective civilian control by appointing a civilian as the defense minister, instead of a former military officer.

“The best thing for a democratic country is to regulate the interests of the military within a democratic framework,” he told BenarNews.

Parliament ought to exercise more oversight on the military as well, he said.

“Parliament should also be more critical, especially on [military] budgets,” he said. 

“It should be transparent and accountable so that there is more objective control, not just following the government’s interests.”


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