New house, new rules?

| Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, 24 October 2009 |

There were hardly any major surprises when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono finally announced his Cabinet line-up on Wednesday night.

Still, analysts remain puzzled by his choice of Dr Purnomo Yusgiantoro (picture), the previous Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, for the country’s top defence post.

For one thing, although he once had a brief stint as vice-governor of the National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas), Dr Yusgiantoro’s educational and professional background is mainly in the mining and energy sector.

For another, the challenges surrounding Indonesia’s defence sector are increasingly complex. They range from the decaying state of operational readiness and lack of budgetary support to the rapidly-changing regional military balance of power.

To put a less experienced commander at the helm during these trying times has certainly raised some eyebrows. Little wonder then that in interviews with the local media following his appointment, Dr Yusgiantoro tried to dispel doubts that he is not up to the task.

Aside from his Lemhanas credentials, he also underlined his good relations with many high-ranking military officers as well as his international energy expertise that could help boost the country’s defence establishment.

Dr Yusgiantoro also made it clear that he will be “strict” in managing Indonesia’s border disputes and has outlined several key policies that he will pursue as Defence Minister. They include affirming the military’s political neutrality, completing the takeover of military businesses, increasing the welfare of soldiers and wrapping up unfinished military-related bills.

Given Mr Yudhoyono’s effective control of both the Parliament and Cabinet, it is easy to assume that these policies could be implemented without too many obstacles. However, we often forget that in post-Suharto Indonesia, politics – and by implication, decision-making – is no longer a unipolar order of business driven by the President. The House of Representatives (DPR) plays an absolutely critical role these days.

Within the DPR, defence policies fall within the purview of Commission I. Its members not only get to approve the defence budget and major procurements, they also have policy oversight over other defence-related departments, including the State Intelligence Agency and Military General Headquarters.

Apart from being empowered to ratify treaties, Commission I can also propose and enact laws not subject to a presidential veto. Its formal approval is required for key appointments, including the heads of the military and police.

Unfortunately, despite these critical roles, the picture that emerges when we look at the commission’s new structure seems to be a fuzzy one.

First, its portfolio, that already covers defence and foreign affairs, has been expanded to include communication and information as well.

This means that some of its members would have expertise in communication or information affairs but without sufficient exposure to defence management. They include Mr Roy Suryo, a well-known IT expert, and actress Rachel Maryam. It remains to be seen how they will shape defence policies.

Second, the commission is now chaired by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which, as a party, has not had a lot of experience in handling the technicalities of defence policy-making. In fact, none of the members appointed to the commission has much expertise in the intricacies of defence management.

Third, many of the experienced civilian legislators familiar with defence affairs have either lost their re-election bids during the April legislative polls or have retired.

Aside from one or two members of the Old Guard, the new Commission I will now have several first-time legislators, including Mr Eddie Bhaskoro Yudhoyono, the President’s son. He has a degree in political economy from a Singapore university. As such, it might be difficult to expect the voice of reason, maturity and experience to echo strongly in the chambers where Commission I holds its meetings.

Finally, given the imbalance of expertise in defence affairs, defence policy discussions are likely to be steered by retired police and military officers. They mainly come from either the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle or the Democratic Party.

Most of these men are often seen as “political” rather than “reformist” generals. In fact, some of them had run in local elections before. Others are known to be Mr Yudhoyono’s close confidantes or were part of his re-election campaign team.

So, what can one expect in the next five years?

For starters, it is difficult to imagine that the Defence Minister will hit the ground running, especially when many Commission I members are still trying to play catch-up on defence issues. More importantly, efforts to reform and professionalise the military establishment might become more complicated.

Although the President might place his allies in Parliament to provide support for Dr Yusgiantoro’s policies, the fact that there aren’t many experienced voices in the technicalities of defence management means that the future direction of military reform is not a linear one.

As to whether Indonesia would be more assertive in protecting its resources, as some have speculated, the jury is still out on this one.

What seems to be clear, however, is the realisation that Mr Yudhoyono needs to ensure that his party would not only survive his departure in 2014 but also secure his legacies.

The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

This article was originally published by Today Newspaper (Singapore).


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