The selection of Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Hadi Tjahjanto, the former air force chief, as the 20th commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) has sparked little public controversy. The low-profile general had long been predicted to reach the high-ranking military position due to his long-standing relationship with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Jokowi forged close ties with Tjahjanto when the latter served as an airbase commander in the city of Solo on the island of Java, and the former was the city’s mayor in 2011. In 2014, Tjahjanto received a strategic position within Jokowi’s circle as military secretary.
Some analysts argue that it is normal, and even a political boost, for the president to have an officer he can trust control the military, particularly prior to the regional elections this year and the 2019 presidential election. Jokowi will need all the political capital he can get. The political aspirations publicly shown by some higher ranking generals, such as General Gatot Nurmantyo and Lt. Gen. (retired) Edy Rahmayadi with their controversial statements and actions, will generate a counterproductive image for Jokowi’s administration prior to the presidential election next year.
With growing religious intolerance across the country, particularly in Java, Jokowi has to deal with the rise of conservative Muslim groups, which can mobilize hundreds of thousands people and receive huge amounts of public attention. At the same time, he has to forge a political alliance across the full spectrum of society, including the military. Since Jokowi lacks a strong power base in the form of a political party or mass organizations to counter the rise of religious extremism, he has to invest in more political gains to underpin his government in the remaining two years of his presidency. When dealing with the political aspirations of military generals without strong political control over the military, one plausible option is to hand-pick a high-ranking military officer to lead the TNI, as Jokowi did by choosing his longtime friend Tjahjanto.
The TNI is no stranger to personalized rather than institutionalized control of the military. The former has been the model of civil-military relations in Indonesia, even after the downfall of the New Order. Long-term authoritarian General Suharto had set up a patronage-driven mode of selecting military leadership. Former President Abdurahman Wahid followed a similar model by choosing one of his favorite generals, Agus Wirahadikusuma, to occupy a strategic position in order to control the army. Former General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) also relied on putting loyalists in powerful military positions, such as selecting Djoko Suyanto, his longtime friend and classmate, as the first air marshal to be the TNI commander in 2005.
This hand-picked selection of military leaders results in strong political control over the military, particularly useful in maintaining TNI neutrality prior to the local elections across the country this year and, most importantly, the presidential election next year. In addition, with Tjahjanto taking up the TNI commander position, Jokowi can oversee potential political aspirations from senior military officers while modernizing the Indonesian military with its defense and strategic plans. One such effort is Minimum Essential Force (MEF), discussion of which was absent during the two years of Gatot Nurmatyo’s leadership.
However, ascriptive selection based on personal preferences, such as ethnicity or friendship, might create factions within the TNI. As a well-known example, patronage-driven selection gave rise to two factions in the army in the waning days of Suharto’s reign. The green faction, which shared more Islamic views, was represented by senior generals such as Prabowo Subianto; the red faction, with nationalistic views, had Wiranto as its key figure. The question for Tjahjanto, with his minority background from the Air Force among the TNI branches, is the extent to which he can solidify all three branches of the military under his leadership, particularly the army, which has dominated the Indonesian military for years. In addition, after the removal of 16 high-ranking officers who had been placed by Tjahjanto’s predecessor Nurmatyo, the issue of military solidity has been publicly scrutinized.
Against this political backdrop, with the potential of internal division, Tjahjanto will have to implement Indonesia’s strategic and defense agenda until his retirement in 2020.
Internal reform on issues such as military impunity on human rights, criminals, illegal military business, and discipline violations, stalled in the second term of the SBY administration and will not be a priority now. Tackling those issues would face strong internal challenges from the military and so far such reforms have not gained much support from the government and parliament. For instance, article 65 of the 2004 TNI law states that criminal violations, including human rights abuses conducted by military officers, must be held accountable in civilian rather than military courts. A subsequent military justice bill was proposed in 2004 and since then has received strong resistance from the military leadership and also gotten little attention from the executive and legislative agencies.
Prior to regional and presidential elections in coming months, Tjahjanto also has to deal with potential abuses of power by some military officers who can be mobilized by certain candidates for political gain, as happened during the presidential campaign in 2014. In addition, some territorial commands can blatantly use their regional authority to oversee polling stations or even collect polling station result forms (C1 forms), acts which can create fear and intimidation among voters, as occurred in Makassar in 2014. Both cases are clearly at odds with the 2004 TNI law. Tjahjanto has been mandated to strictly control regional officers, requiring them to remain neutral and imposing strict punishment for such abuses of power.
Some analysts point to education, training, personnel management, and the promotion system as other fundamental issues needing to be overhauled with clear guidelines. For instance, the promotion system allegedly relies on a pattern of personal like and dislike under certain leaders. Such a pattern will result in growing frustration among middle- and, most importantly, low-ranking officers who dominate the TNI organizational structure, as limited positions are available to them.
Another crucial issue is to what degree Tjahjanto can bring the military defense plan, namely the MEF 2024, back in line with the changing dynamics in the region and also with the current administration’s grand policy. With his close ties to Jokowi, Tjahjanto might engage with the president’s benchmark of the Global Maritime Fulcrum, which is intended to link national and regional maritime potency.
The TNI has set up its defense policy under MEF 2024 since 2004, in order to improve its capabilities in addressing current and future threats to Indonesian territorial integrity. But previous TNI commander Nurmantyo displayed little interest in deeply charting the extent to which TNI can achieve the ambition of being a regional power.
For instance, along with Jokowi’s vision of turning Indonesia into a Global Maritime Fulcrum for Asia, the Indonesian navy has been transforming itself from a brown water or coastal navy into a green water navy, which can boost the projection of Indonesian naval power at the regional level. Accordingly, the Indonesian navy, with its Navy Blueprint 2013, aims to have a 274-ship force structure, 12 submarines, and three independent fleets operating across the country by 2024. However, this navy plan is still insufficient to cover strategic shipping routes, such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Lombok, and the navy is far from being able to launch its power projection capability, particularly at the regional level. In addition, the navy’s capability and credibility to act as a guardian in protecting and securing sea lanes and international navigation channels passing through Indonesian waters is still questionable. Given the fact that the Indonesian navy lacks the necessary budget to upgrade its military vessels, the green water navy capability, which is expected to be in operation by 2024, can be seen as an ambitious plan for protecting Indonesia’s vast territorial water. To further complicate the story, Indonesian maritime policy thus far also lacks strong coordination among the 13 maritime security agencies. Interagency clashes are not uncommon within such a policy, and the navy even lacks strong authority to act as a central command. Nurmantyo’s leadership did not provide either a strategic plan or an in-depth maritime regime to resolve these issues.
Given these concerns about the TNI, Tjahjanto’s priority in his first two years will be internal security issues, such as military consolidation and neutrality of the military prior and during the regional and presidential election campaigns. However, given his presumably lesser tendency toward non-military activities and his close ties to the president, Tjahjanto may be able to put considerable attention to modernizing the Indonesian military as a potential regional power in Asia.
Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge is a researcher at the Marthinus Academy, Jakarta.