Indonesian Military returns to politics?

| Evan A. Laksmana | Singapore, 12 August 2008 |

In the past few weeks, a debate surrounding the 2009 general elections has revolved around the role of the Indonesian Military (TNI) in political parties where almost every major political party has former military officers sitting as board members or as chairman.

For example, the Golkar Party is now spearheaded by Vice President Jusuf Kalla as chairman and Lt. Gen. (ret) Sumarsono as secretary-general, while former military officers are filling the Hanura and Gerindra party leadership under retired generals Wiranto and Prabowo, respectively.

In addition, this military “comeback” coincides with the growing trend of former military men contesting local elections. Marcus Mietzner, a lecturer at the Australian National University, found that in 2006, 8 percent of the candidates contesting 50 local polls were retired military and police officers.

This begs the question: Is the Indonesian Military returning to politics? Although officially banned from day-to-day politics, the military has always been considered Indonesia’s most powerful political institution by virtue of its institutional strength, especially its territorial command structure.

In this regard, it might not be a question of whether the military has returned to politics, but a question of how it plays politics under the new rules of the game. In other words, one could argue it never actually left the political scene.

If this is the case, what then explains the phenomenon of an apparent military “comeback” in politics?

First, as argued by Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, a professor at the National Institute of Sciences, it might be an indication of a post-power syndrome among officers who were once part of the ruling elite — or it might only involve a handful of high-ranking former officers rather than indicate a general trend plaguing the entire officer corps.

Second, it could also be seen as the result of politicization, and even commercialization, of the officer corps, which is instigated not only by the political leadership’s intervention in internal military affairs — as was the case during the terms of presidents Sukarno, Soeharto, and Abdurrahman Wahid — but also due to the nature of the military education and its territorial command system.

The fact that the majority of the Army is utilized for staff positions in the territorial command structure suggests that the career experience of the majority of the officer corps is actually related to social, business, and political issues in the regions.

Although the process of military education reform is currently underway, the curricula at the military academies all the way through the staff and command colleges since the 1960s have always emphasized social-political subjects. This suggests that some, if not most, military officers would be prepared for “sociopolitical” tasks, and hence, by implication, might not be well trained in other skills required for an alternative livelihood after retirement other than politics or business.

Finally, the military prevalence in politics highlights the failure of the civilian leadership — whether to provide stability and improve welfare, or to overcome their lack of political confidence — because they continue to drag the military back in.

On the one hand, we hear the oft-repeated accusation from the military establishment that the civilian politicians are a prime source of the nation’s problems — which the public seems to agree with. A Kompas poll in 2007 noted that 46.6 percent of the public would vote for a military figure as the next president. On the other hand, the charge might not have credibility had it not been for the fact that corruption among civilian politicians is increasing while basic prices are skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, the “inferiority syndrome” suffered by civilian politicians highlights two points: First, the weakness of the civilian defense community to adequately support the civilian leadership; and second, the cliche that military men are financially and politically omnipotent — regardless of the current debate challenging the leadership skills possessed by former military officers.

What does all this mean for Indonesia’s fledgling military reform and delicate civilian-military relations?

First, although the focus on removing the military from day-to-day politics and regulating their commercial activities is certainly a worthy cause, the issue of military education reform should be the top priority of decision makers in Jakarta.

Without a complete overhaul and integration of the military curricula — as well as a civilian teaching staff — military officers will always reserve the potential to play a sociopolitical role.

Second, although the territorial command structure cannot be plausibly erased entirely due to the prevalence of internal security threats and separatism, a mechanism should be enforced within the existing regulations to “isolate” military men assigned to regional staff positions to prevent them from being utilized or dragged into local social, political and business activities.

When it comes to civilian-military relations, observers have noted this “comeback” phenomenon could be seen positively as far as military politics are concerned because with former generals running their own campaigns, the military might not be able to present a unified front. Hence, as the argument goes, civilian leadership could be strengthened at the expense of a “fractured” military establishment.

However, a strong civilian leadership cannot be fully achieved without the strengthening of a civilian defense community that could bridge the civilian-military divide while assisting both sides in dealing with national security issues. At the same time, the civilian leadership also needs to overcome its “inferiority syndrome” and stop bringing the military back into politics.

Finally, public exhaustion over corrupt civilian politicians might lead to disillusionment with democratic ideals and civilian supremacy over the military — premised upon distinct “civilian” and “military” realms.

Eventually, if this dichotomy is increasingly blurred, a reconsideration of civilian-military relations that for the past decade has been centered upon establishing a civilian supremacy over the military might be required.

In the end, whether a civilian-military “partnership” would be the best form of relationship and whether such partnership would prove more productive for Indonesia’s future in the long run remains to be seen.

The writer is a research analyst at the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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