Anti-reform actors hover over Indonesia’s coming elections

Author: Damien Kingsbury, Deakin University

Indonesia’s democracy is being increasingly tested by the triple challenges of anti-reform actors, a high-level political malaise and popular disenchantment with the electoral process.

Prabowo Subianto accepts the Great Indonesia Movement Party nomination for the 2014 presidential election (Photo: Wikipedia).

One indicator of this has been an increasing tendency by the Indonesian military (TNI) to reassert itself into the political debate. Indonesia is heading into legislative elections in April and presidential elections in July on the back of poor performance by the country’s politicians, turning off voters in droves. Against this backdrop, one of Indonesia’s most senior army generals has raised the spectre of the army’s return to involvement in politics.

Indonesia’s army strategic command head, Lieutenant General Gatot Nurmantyo, has criticised Indonesia’s democracy as ‘empty’ and said that popular will expressed through elections is not always right. As a panacea, Nurmantyo has called for a reassertion of the nationalist ideology of Pancasila (five principles), which underpinned Suharto’s three decades as military-backed president.

Nurmantyo’s comments, made to a Pancasila Youth (PP) rally in October, reflect an increasing confidence by TNI hard-liners in challenging restrictions on military contact with politics. It was this hard-line faction of the TNI that helped end Indonesia’s military reform process around the time that President Yudhoyono began his second term as president.

Yudhoyono’s second term has been widely viewed as, at best, lack-lustre, and his Democratic Party-led government has been plagued by a series of corruption scandals. With other political parties fairing little better and ‘money politics’ dominating local electoral contests, popular support for Indonesia’s democratic process is in decline.

A series of surveys have shown that Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral participation rate may slump to below half. There is even an appetite among many voters for a return to ‘strong’ leadership, with a preference for candidates with a military background.

In a political environment in which one of the two front-runners for the presidency is former military hard-liner Lieutenant General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto, Nurmantyo’s breaking of over a decade of military silence on domestic politics signals a potential alternative to Indonesia’s democratic path.

Prabowo’s popularity is behind Jakarta governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in the presidential polls. But Jokowi, himself a populist, does not yet have the backing of a major political party that is required for presidential nomination. Political support — if it comes — will be from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which has also demonstrated pro-military leanings at times.

Democracy in developing states tends to be vulnerable to reversal, particularly where the military remains primarily focused on internal rather than external threats. While Indonesia’s electoral system will very likely be retained, the potential for it to be restricted in ways that render voting more or less meaningless, as under Suharto, cannot be ruled out.

Nurmantyo’s controversial address to the PP was explained away, unconvincingly, by a senior politician as not contravening a ban on military personnel being involved in politics as it focused on the state ideology of Pancasila. The PP itself was founded by the TNI in 1959, soon after the military became directly involved in domestic politics.

Initially a civilian front for the military, the PP quickly degenerated into an organisation of thugs and criminals who often undertook dirty work on behalf of the Suharto regime. It has more recently been involved in violent turf wars with other gangs and remains associated with particular factions within the TNI.

Nurmantyo’s comments are not just the ravings of a military extremist, as he has been viewed as a rising star in the Indonesian army. His hard-line views saw him recently passed over for the position of army commander, but with a more conservative president in office following the July elections it is possible that Nurmantyo’s military career could again rise.

Indonesia’s neighbours are already concerned over the outcome of July’s presidential elections and a possible lurch towards a more assertively nationalist orientation. Set against growing voter apathy, generals such as Nurmantyo are well positioned to push Indonesia even further away from its recent path of reform.

Jokowi is a populist and has not enunciated a clear policy position. He may not be as pro-military as Prabowo, but his views on the military and the nature of democracy are largely unknown. If he was put forward by PDI-P — which is not looking hopeful at this stage — he would be required to follow PDI-P policy, such as it is, which is ‘preservation of national unity’ above all, which in turn is code for a greater role for the TNI.

The likelihood of Indonesia further entrenching its democratic credentials will require a win by a convincingly reform-oriented presidential candidate. Scanning of Indonesia’s political field just months away from the elections, however, holds out limited hope.

Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University. He has published a number of books and articles on Indonesian politics and the TNI.  


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  • Hipo

    This article re-sparks my concern about the role of military in the consolidation of democracy. I’ve been constantly researching about the role of TNI in Indonesia prof. here is my paper’s link I am proposing a concept of the military ruling ambition which applies on the Indonesian case. The hard-line and soft-line views within the TNI remind me about the internal division that remains constant since it originally came up among those Dutch graduates, Japanese graduates, and folk legion (Andi Aziz, KH Muzakar,etc). Fast forward, and it also remains me of the division between red-white faction and green faction in the late of Suharto’s regime. Given this, the crucial question should be whether the TNI is really part of state as an coercive apparatus or it has become an independent entity within the state (they build their own type of regime). Whoever is president of Indonesia, the TNI won’t subordinated to civilian practically.

    • Damien Kingsbury

      Hi Hipo,

      There is a contest of ideas and control between the TNI and the civilian government. It is not a static situaion, and continues to shift and change. The future remains uncertain, but there is little doubt that the pro-TNI groupings are stronger than they were



  • Nick

    Lots of good points in this article, especially the PDI-P’s lack of commitment to military reform – often overlooked when the media swoons over Jokowi.

    I wish the author had elaborated on “Indonesia’s neighbours are already concerned over the outcome of July’s presidential elections and a possible lurch towards a more assertively nationalist orientation.” Which neighbours and what proof is there of this?

    • Damien Kingsbury

      Hi Nick,

      The ‘concerns’ are via a series of private discussions with various Australian policy advisers and regional political leaders. I can’t provide ‘proof’, but am clear in my understanding of this.

  • Anonymous

    It is funny how you see the TNI as anti-reform actors, especially when you highlighted Prabowo Subianto. I believe Prabowo is still up there among the other candidates, although I agree that not all of the TNI actors are fully functional when it comes to politics. In the upcoming election. Prabowo Subianto is still acceptable. In particular when we think of the other candidates, someone like Bakrie is unwanted and unreliable, nobody from SBY’s party will cut through to the top, and Jokowi lacks the intelligence and experience as an international actor. Reformation can be brought by anybody, from anywhere, it is just a matter of will and commitment. As of now, I believe only Prabowo Subianto have such a character.

    Putting that aside, this is a good article. Cheers.

    • Damien Kingsbury

      Thanks Anonymous,

      I suspect we will have to agree to disagree re Prabowo. Prabowo is acceptable to some Indonesian voters because he is seen as ‘strong’ – exactly the point of my article. He has no track record in political leadership. I agree there are few alternatives, but accepting Prabowo because the field is so poor only shows how thin Indonesian democracy really is.

      • Greg

        Well, i agree with you, as of now the field of democracy in Indonesia is so poor. Yet, what i’m thinking is Indonesians still have to manage to get the best out of it. Again, i agree with you that Prabowo has no track of political leadership, but we have to be aware that in the upcoming election, only few have such experience. Anyway, i am curious, who’s your favourite candidate?

        • Damien Kingsbury

          Hi Greg,

          I don’t have a favorite candidate, especially out of the current available group. Ideally I would have liked to have seen someone from PD come forward, but I don’t think that will now happen – at least not successfully.