Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (R) speaks to the then-commander of the armed forces, General Gatot Nurmantyo (L), during the 70th anniversary celebrations of Indonesia's armed forces at the naval port in Cilegon, West Java province. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Handout

Disproving once again the catchphrase “old soldiers simply fade away,” maverick former Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander Gatot Nurmantyo is making political waves again in an apparent bid to contest 2024 presidential elections.

But as the most vocal member of the Coalition for Action to Save Indonesia (KAMI), he has recently been forced on the backfoot by claims that the loose-knit organization is behind a recent wave of sometimes violent demonstrations against the newly-passed Omnibus Job Creation Law.

The nationwide protests, directed mostly at changes to the worker-friendly 2003 Labor Law, have given rise to speculation in government intelligence circles that shadowy forces are making early efforts to weaken President Joko Widodo as he struggles to contain the coronavirus and keep the economy on track.

That appeared to paint a target on Nurmantyo, 60, who, in a sudden about-face that perplexed his KAMI colleagues, now says he supports the 812-page omnibus legislation and its raft of across-the-board reforms aimed at making Indonesia a better and easier place to do business.

A well-placed government official told Asia Times that Nurmantyo finally backed off after a senior Cabinet minister warned influential businessman Tomy Winata, 62, an acknowledged associate of the general, that he could be heading for serious trouble.

Eight KAMI activists in Jakarta and Medan are already facing five years’ imprisonment for allegedly using hate speech to incite violence during the protests in violation of the country’s 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction Law. More than 130 people face charges after a series of riots broke out in Central Jakarta in the second week of October.

Laborers rally against a controversial new law which critics fear will favor investors at the expense of labor rights and the environment in Jakarta, October 22, 2020. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP

Political sources say that while the well-funded general has been forced into a strategic retreat, he still appears to be positioning himself as a more viable opposition candidate than Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan in a wide-open field for the 2024 presidential election.

According to KAMI members, Nurmantyo may have felt vulnerable because of two controversies that drew public attention during his short, year-long term as army chief of staff in 2014-2015.

One was a still-born US$350 million scheme for army engineers to rehabilitate rice fields across the country. The other was the purchase of 150 aging Belgium M113A1 armored personnel carriers, along with an Italian flotation device designed to make them fully amphibious.

There are few doubts Nurmantyo will be back. “He is still part of KAMI, but now he has publicly accepted the idea of the law, and the powers-that-be don’t consider him a threat, he has probably given himself some leeway,” says one KAMI source.

While he is given only an outside chance of contesting the 2024 race at this point, another durable ex-general, Defence Minister and Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) leader Prabowo Subianto, 68, is currently considered the front-runner.

Several retired generals quit Prabowo’s camp when he accepted Widodo’s invitation to join the Cabinet, including former military intelligence chief Yayat Sudradjat, once a member of the minister’s inner circle and a military academy classmate of Nurmantyo.   

He is now part of KAMI, a self-styled moral movement co-founded last August by Widodo critic Rizal Ramli, a former finance and economic coordinating minister, and Din Syamsuddin, ex-chairman of the mass Muslim organization Muhammadiyah.

“We want to make sure we represent all Indonesians,” says Ramli, who rules out any political party affiliation. “Mainly we are a group of retired intellectuals who want to push for a better Indonesia, rather than going political.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) talks with then-TNI chief Gatot Nurmantyo (L) as they walk past fighter jets and weapons during a military exercise on Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia October 6, 2016. Photo: Agencies

By design or not, the group’s Indonesian acronym matches that of the Indonesian Students Action Union, a military-backed anti-communist student organization that led the 1965-66 protests that brought down national founder and president Sukarno.

Nurmantyo wouldn’t have been TNI chief if Widodo had not needed a strong army figure behind him in his tussle with ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri over a favored candidate for the police leadership.

When the army chief was chosen for the post in July 2015, Widodo overlooked the air force commander who would normally have beennext in line as part of the informal convention of rotating the post through each of the three services in turn.

Over the next 18 months, Widodo may have had his regrets as Nurmantyo embarked on public speeches and media interviews that ultimately led to suspicions he was using his position to advance his presidential ambitions when he retired in March 2018.

He was finally removed from his post in late 2017, three months ahead of time, after openly courting conservative Islamic groups campaigning to bring down on blasphemy accusations ethnic-Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, a Widodo ally.

It wasn’t the first time Nurmantyo had stepped out of line. Earlier that year, in a fit of pique, the then TNI commanderunilaterally severed military-to-military ties with Australia without informing either the president or his security advisers.

That was after a TNI officer came across seemingly anti-Indonesian teaching materials at the Special Air Service Regiment’s Campbell Barracks in Western Australia, including one document that lampooned Pancasila, the state ideology.

“We were very surprised,” says one former minister who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We told Jokowi that he should be fired and that he shouldn’t be allowed to make political statements. But  the president wanted to make sure a replacement would be accepted by Parliament.”

As it turned out, his choice of a new commander was Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, a friend from earlier days who quickly rooted out Nurmantyo loyalists the outgoing general had promoted to strategic positions in his final days in office.    

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto takes aim in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Apart from several unpublicized meetings with Gerindra leader Prabowo in the lead up to the 2019 elections, Nurmantyo does not appear to have any political affiliations.

Analysts believe most of the larger parties are likely to shy away from a man whose often bizarre views on a range of topics have stamped him as uncontrollable and a blowback to another era of conspiracy  theories and nationalistic paranoia.

During his tenure as army chief, Nurmantyo said he  believed that US Marines training in northern Australia were there for the eventual takeover of Papua. He also expressed suspicions that some of his overseas-trained officers were agents of influence for foreign powers.

Beginning when he was head of the Army Strategic Command (Kostrad), his most common claim has been that foreigners in general are engaged in a proxy war to undermine Indonesia so they can exploit its resources.

He expressed the conviction then that while the US wanted Indonesia’s mining wealth, China had its eye on its vast food potential because its own agricultural production would inevitably fall short, sending “food refugees” flooding through Southeast Asia.

Nor is Nurmantyo shy about playing the religious card, as he often did as TNI chief. “He often portrays himself as a protector of Islam,” notes one senior politician. “He is trying to capitalize on the Islamic connection and the general dislike of Jokowi (Widodo).”

To be sure, these are difficult times for the president. A recent Kompas newspaper survey showed his disapproval rating now stands at 52.5%, the lowest since he took power in 2014 and down from 72% in March when the coronavirus crisis began.

Widodo can’t legally run for a third term, but he is mindful of his legacy. After deservedly earning the title of the “Infrastructure President” for his remarkable building program, the omnibus law is seen as potentially his crowning achievement in rebuilding the economy.

Widodo is also helping set a political course for his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 33, who is attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps by running as PDI-P’s candidate for mayor of Solo, Central Java, in December’s local elections.

Gibran Rakabuming Raka (C), eldest son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, on the campaign trail in Surakarta, Indonesia, January 2020. Photo: AFP/Dika

In North Sumatra, PDI-P has nominated Widodo’s son-in-law, Muhammad Bobby Nasution, 29, to contest the mayoralty of Medan, the country’s fourth-largest city, where he also has the support of the Golkar, Gerindra  and National Democrat (Nasdem) parties.

Nurmantyo is not the only figure blamed for inciting the recent riots and street disturbances. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is also in the firing line in what is seen as an effort to advance the political ambitions of his son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, 42, leader of the centrist Democrat Party.

Roiling the political waters at this early point in the election cycle makes little obvious sense apart from keeping potential candidates in the public eye. “The game is simple,” says one senior government official. “It’s to get their names on social media so that when the time comes in two or three years, people will remember them.”