During former president Suharto’s New Order reign, political analysts were breathless followers of the Indonesian military’s regular changes in command, a measure of who was in favor, who was not, and, more importantly, who might be rising as a possible successor to the president himself.
But with a few notable holdovers, the days when a bemedaled uniform smoothed passage to national leadership effectively died with Suharto’s downfall in May 1998 and the birth of a new democratic era that ended the Indonesian Armed Forces’ (TNI) self-serving dual function (dual-fungsi) role in domestic politics.
Even before, Suharto showed by belatedly reaching out to Muslim leaders that he never had the same trust in the TNI after his own generation of generals was replaced by a stream of newcomers he knew little about and had even less confidence in.
Nearly 20 years later, it would be interesting to speculate on what Suharto would have made of TNI commander General Gatot Nurmantyo, who clearly feels a glittering political career awaits him beyond his mandatory retirement in March next year.
The general view suggests otherwise, as President Joko Widodo prepares to make a bid for a second term in April 2019, when presidential and legislative elections will be held on the same day.
But Nurmantyo is one of a kind. Not since the birth of the democratic era has an Indonesian military commander so blatantly displayed his political ambitions while still in office. And never before has one so openly courted religious groups in the hope of burnishing his electability.
“He doesn’t have much in the way of personal charisma and he doesn’t have much political acumen,” says one Western military analyst. “He would be no competition for Widodo, so I can’t see any other party picking him as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate.”
Predecessor TNI chief General Moeldoko had the same ambitions before he retired in July 2015. So far, he has only landed the job of deputy chairman of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), led by political coordinating minister Wiranto, another former armed forces’ chief.
Wiranto, Suharto’s one-time adjutant who often boasts he saved democracy after the authoritarian leader resigned in 1998, had higher political office ambitions in mind, too, running unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2004 and the vice-presidency in 2009.
But he and Moeldoko never made the same waves as Nurmantyo, who recently stirred controversy again by claiming the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) had sought to illegally import 5,000 weapons, using President Joko Widodo’s name to do so.
In a leaked audio recording of remarks he made to retired military officers on September 22, Wiranto among them, Nurmantyo also warned he would “attack” the police if they were supplied with military-grade weapons, apparently a reference to recent arms purchases.
That threatened to reignite inter-service antagonism, never far below the surface since the police separated from the military chain of command in 1999 and assumed control over many of its illegal business activities.
Nurmantyo was accused of playing politics and received sharp public rebukes from Wiranto, defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and TB Hasanuddin, a former army general and deputy chairman of Parliament’s defense commission.
Widodo later met with Nurmantyo and while he did not disclose what was said, he insisted that only 500 “short-barreled” weapons were involved and they were to be acquired from state-owned arms manufacturer PT Pindad, not from overseas.
Both BIN and the police, which is in the market for 15,000 pistols to replace the revolvers still carried by many patrolmen, had already discussed their procurements with the House of Representatives as part of the 2018 budgetary process.
What didn’t help was the arrival in the middle of all the controversy of a Ukrainian Air Force cargo plane carrying 280 Bulgarian-made SAGL grenade launchers and 6,000 grenades destined for the paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade.
Although the 43-millimeter launcher can fire different types of ordnance, the police had to hastily explain that the new shipment of grenades contained teargas and smoke for legitimate crowd-control operations, not high explosive.
Insiders say Nurmantyo’s attack on BIN stems from a long-simmering conflict with its director, Budi Gunawan, a former deputy police chief and a close associate of ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Gunawan was given the intelligence post as consolation after Widodo went over his and the heads of several other more senior officers to choose the youthful Gen Tito Karnavian, a former Detachment 88 commander, as national police chief in mid-2016.
The president thought long and hard about sacking Nurmantyo last year after the maverick general unilaterally suspended ties with the Australia Defense Force (ADF) over perceived as derogatory materials about Indonesia included in ADF training manuals.
He has said in the past he believes US Marines training in northern Australia are there for the eventual takeover of Papua. In public speeches, he often espouses his pet theory that foreigners are engaged in a proxy war to undermine Indonesia.
In the end, Widodo kept his cool, but at the time he was rattled by two mass rallies against ethnic-Chinese Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama, whose blasphemy trial, he suspected, had become a tool to weaken him ahead of the 2019 elections.
Worrying for him are Nurmantyo’s ties to the conservative Muslim alliance at the forefront of the protests that led to Purnama’s defeat in the April gubernatorial election and his subsequent conviction and imprisonment for blasphemy.
He also used the recent anniversary of the September 30, 1965, coup, blamed on the long-defunct Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), to bang the drum about the threat of a supposed communist revival, despite the absence of any evidence to support such a notion.
The communist specter is something military and religious diehards continue to raise as a way of defending the subsequent purge of the PKI in 1965-66 that claimed as many as 500,000 lives and left an indelible stain on the country’s psyche.
A recent poll showed 86% of Indonesians don’t believe there are still “Reds Under the Bed,” but Widodo has had to deal before with rumors spread by his political rivals that his parents were PKI members — something that could still badly damage him among easily led, uneducated voters.
Certainly, any loyalty serving officers have towards Nurmantyo will quickly disappear on his retirement, and while he will retain a measure of influence due any former commander, he will likely find only a limited number of parties willing to support his political ambitions.
One exception may be opposition leader and prospective presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who has his own Islamist allies, including the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) which Nurmantyo recently praised for its “consistency” in maintaining national unity.
In openly brandishing his Muslim credentials, the TNI chief may see himself as a running mate to Prabowo, an ex-special forces commander who, with few political allies to call on, reportedly has him on a short list of retired generals he is considering for 2019.
Nurmantyo’s successor in the military’s top post is likely to be air force chief of staff Hadi Tjahjanto, 53, a transport pilot well known to Widodo after serving as commander of the air base in the president’s hometown of Solo, Central Java, in 2010-2011, and also as his military secretary in his first year in office.
Tjahjanto’s age means he would hold the post for four years, longer than any of the previous eight commanders stretching back to 1998, and matching the tenure of trusted police chief Karnavian, who doesn’t retire until 2022.
If appointed to TNI chief, he would also be the second air force officer to fill a position which remained in the hands of the army from the birth of the republic until 1999 — a year after Suharto’s fall — when a navy admiral finally broke the mold.
His junior service background will raise questions about Tjahjanto’s level of authority, but that will depend in part on whether Widodo is able to find a trusted candidate to succeed low-profile army chief General Mulyono when he retires in January 2019.
That could turn out to be Major General Andika Perkasa, 52, the current West Kalimantan regional commander who previously served as head of the presidential security force and is now in line for promotion to a third star, one step removed from army chief rank.
Educated at Washington’s National War College and Harvard University, Perkasa is the son of former intelligence guru Gen Hendropriyono, another influential member of Megawati’s inner circle.
Either way, it would still leave Widodo with a trusted support base in the police and military well into his second term, something he may need as a comfort blanket if he must fend off future political challenges from the far right.