Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C), accompanied by top General Moeldoko (L) and General Gatot Nurmantyo during the inauguration of an Indonesian army military exercise in Baturaja, southern Sumatra island in 2016. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Rusman

What was billed as a Cabinet reshuffle turned out to be little more than a riffle, but in replacing his chief of staff with a retired military commander Indonesian President Joko Widodo is clearly inserting some starch into the ranks ahead of legislative and presidential elections in 2019.

General Moeldoko stepped down in mid-2015 with the avowed intention of running for the presidency, just as his troublesome successor, General Gatot Nurmantyo, did before his ambitions got ahead of themselves and he was sacked three months before retirement.

Moeldoko, 60, has now made it to the presidential palace, but in a somewhat different role than he saw for himself, managing the president’s day-to-day affairs and acting, presumably, as the ultimate palace gatekeeper.

That leaves Widodo surrounded by a coterie of uniformed loyalists, including new military commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, police chief General Tito Karnavian, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and political adviser Luhut Panjaitan, an ex-special forces general serving as maritime coordinating minister.

Another is police general Budi Gunawan, head of the National Intelligence Agency (BIN), whose first loyalty may be to Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, but who spends a lot of time briefing the president on domestic political developments.

President Joko Widodo (right) inaugurates Air Force Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto as the country’s new military chief at the presidential palace in Jakarta on December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Gagah Adhaputra

Gunawan, 58, recently took a leading position at the Indonesian Mosque Association, which has oversight over the country’s estimated 800,000 mosques, including those that could be used to rally support against Widodo when the presidential campaign begins in earnest this August. The association is chaired by Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Sworn in this week as well was Agung Gumelar, 72, a retired special forces general and former transportation minister recently appointed to head the nine-man presidential advisory council, which also contains Suharto-era army chief General Subagyo Hadi Siswoyo.

A member of Political Coordinating Minister Wiranto’s People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), which he formed after leaving the Golkar Party in 2006, Moeldoko replaces Teten Masduki, the mild-mannered human rights campaigner with what insiders say is a shortage of the stamina required for such a high-pressure job.

Wiranto, 70, is another retired military chief who has been allied with the president since the outset, initially to put a dent in the ambitions of Widodo’s presidential rival, Prabowo Subianto, with whom he had engaged in a bitter power struggle in the aftermath of president Suharto’s downfall in 1998.

Earlier in his military career, Moeldoko was an adjutant to intelligence guru Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, 72, a long-time ally of ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, even during her struggles with President Suharto in the 1990s.

Newly appointed chief of staff and retired military chief Moeldoko at his swearing in ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta, January 17, 2018. Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Hendropriyono’s son, Diaz, is part of Widodo’s special staff and his son-in-law, former presidential security force commander Lieutenant General Andika Perkasa, was recently promoted from West Kalimantan regional chief to head the military’s training command, which puts him in line for the top army post when General Mulyono retires in January 2019.

Political analysts believe Moeldoko’s appointment in such a strategic position in the president’s office may reduce the powerful influence of Panjaitan, who played a key role in Widodo’s 2014 election and in bringing the Golkar party into the ruling coalition.

The only actual change in Widodo’s Cabinet line-up is outgoing Golkar party Secretary General Idrus Marham, 55, who becomes social affairs minister in place of Kofifah Parawansa, one of three candidates vying for the governorship of East Java.

Critics have questioned why Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto is being allowed to retain his portfolio after he was appointed the new chairman of Golkar, with the Koran Tempo newspaper saying in a hard-hitting editorial that it breaches a promise Widodo made at the start of his presidency.

Golkar Party chairman and industry minister Airlangga Hartarto in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP

Wiranto was compelled to step down from the Hanura leadership when he became chief political minister in July 2016 and National Awakening Party (PKB) chairman Muhaimin Iskander was denied a Cabinet position in 2014 because he refused to leave his party post.

Apart from giving Golkar a fourth slot in Cabinet as a reward for its declaration of support in 2019, Marham’s singular appointment suggests that despite frequent rumors of a more extensive reshuffle, Widodo has no intention of changing his Cabinet again before next year’s elections.

The heavy presence of retired and serving officers around the president has unnerved political activists, many of them habitual critics of generals who have a life after they quit the service and look to use their residual influence by embarking on new careers in politics.

But Widodo is clearly mindful of some of the security challenges that could arise with regional elections on the horizon in June and his political rivals apparently gearing up to play the Islamic card they used so effectively during last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Budi Gunawan had replaced Jusuf Kalla as head of the Indonesian Mosque Association. While Gunawan has taken a leading role, Kalla remains the association’s head. We regret the mistake.

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