Elite Indonesian army special forces known as Kopassus stand in formation at Halim Perdana Kusumah airport in Jakarta. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

JAKARTA – Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ruled out an imminent Cabinet reshuffle, despite widespread speculation he was planning to bring newly-retired Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto into the lineup for his remaining three years in office.

A trusted loyalist and the longest-serving TNI chief since president Suharto’s New Order era, Tjahjanto, 58, was recently replaced by former army chief of staff General Andika Perkasa, who will have only 11 months before he too reaches retirement age. 

With Tjahjanto apparently anxious to get back to his East Java hometown of Malang for a break, Widodo told reporters he is not considering a reshuffle for now. “We are not there yet,” he said, indicating changes might still be in the wind.

Reshuffle rumors have been circulating since the National Mandate Party (PAN) joined the government last August, leaving only the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s centrist Democrat Party (PD) outside the ruling structure.

However, finding a place for a PAN appointee in the seven-party coalition may be difficult, particularly after the sixth-ranked party spent two years in the wings resolving internal differences before it finally decided to join.

The government now controls 471 of the 575 seats in Parliament, but the nearer the country gets to the 2024 presidential and general elections the more likely it is for splits to appear in the ranks as parties lobby for attention.

Tjahjanto was widely tipped to replace presidential chief of staff Moeldoko, a former TNI commander who last February sought to use his position to launch a coup against Democrat chairman Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the ex-president’s son. 

Widodo’s failure to censure Moeldoko led to speculation he was aware of the conspiracy, but Democrat insiders dismissed suggestions it was a plot hatched in the palace. Rather, they say, the chief of staff appears to have been acting on his own.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo attaches the rank to the new Armed Forces Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto during an inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP via Antara Foto.

With the elder Yudhoyono undergoing cancer treatment in the US, disaffected old guard politicians are now challenging Agus’ leadership in the courts, contending that the ex-president’s family is using undemocratic means to establish a political dynasty. 

If a nominal rotation system among the three services had been followed, the top military job would have gone to Navy chief Admiral Yudo Margono, 55, but most analysts believe the US-educated Perkasa was favored because of his political connections.

He is the son-in-law of former intelligence guru A.M. Hendropriyono, who despite having little residual influence in the palace itself, has been a long-time ally of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) matriarch Megawati Sukarnoputri.

There has been talk of Widodo extending Perkasa’s term beyond November next year. But it has never been done before and the president would presumably have to come up with a convincing reason to do so.

As Suharto’s base of support during his 32-year rule, the army filled the top military post until the birth of democracy in 1999, when Admiral Widodo Adi Sujipto served for a two-year period during the presidencies of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati.

Since then, five generals have held the job, interspersed by an admiral and two air marshals. Analysts note, however, that General Gatot Nurmantyo was chosen in 2015 to put the military behind Widodo in his conflict with Megawati and powerful deputy police chief Budi Goenawan.

Whether Margono will be next in line may depend on whether Widodo falls back on the army again in choosing Lieutenant General Dudung Abdurachman, 56, Perkasa’s successor as army chief and best known for his uncompromising stand against Islamic extremism.

As Jakarta’s region commander, Abdurachman faced down Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) firebrand Rizieq Shihab, whose return from exile in Saudi Arabia in November 2019 was greeted at the airport by tens of thousands of his extremist supporters.

After ripping down street posters extolling Rizieq’s virtues, the general bluntly told the militant leader: “Don’t just talk nonsense about fire and hell. I get very upset when I hear clerics spout bad things during religious ceremonies. As a Muslim, I can’t accept it.”

Margono and Abdurachman retire at almost the same time in 2023, but analysts believe Margono’s chances may have taken a blow as a result of his actions leading up to the loss of the Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala 402 off the coast of Bali last April.

Lieutenant General Dudung Abdurachman in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

The admiral may have also made himself unpopular by trying to enforce Navy ownership over several housing estates where ex-servicemen – including several flag officers – have built and paid for their own houses on an installment scheme going back to the 1970s.

Known as a micro-manager, Perkasa earns grumbles from his fellow officers for spending an unprecedented eight years in the United States – between 2003 and 2011 – in what turned out to be a failed attempt to earn his doctorate at George Washington University. 

Ticking promotional boxes is important in a military where seniority counts, but the large gap in Perkasa’s service record was not questioned during his fit and proper test in Parliament, a hurried affair that focused mostly on his last two years as army chief.

That included his successful staging of the largest-ever US-Indonesia land exercise spread across Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi last August involving more than 1,500 troops from America’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Insiders say Perkasa stayed abroad so long because of his poor chances of promotion under Yudhoyono, who had a rocky relationship with Hendropriyono, the former head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and a member of Megawati’s inner circle.

When he returned to Indonesia, Perkasa’s next three years were spent as commander of a Jakarta training unit, head of a small district command in North Sumatra and then as officer in charge of the Army Public Relations Office.

When Yudhoyono stepped down in 2014, his career took off. Only days after Widodo’s inauguration, he received his second star and was promptly appointed head of the battalion-sized Presidential Security Force.

Then followed promotions to the West and Central Kalimantan region command and subsequently to the three-star post as head of the Army Training Command.

What raised eyebrows, however, was his appointment to Kostrad, the army’s two-division combat command, in July 2018, followed only four months later by his elevation to army chief of staff, heading off three other candidates for the post.

Analysts say his rate of promotion has only been matched by current Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto’s rapid rise through the ranks as Suharto’s son-in-law in the 1990s, which came to an abrupt halt when the authoritarian ruler resigned in 1998.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (C) visits an Indonesian Air Force Base in Natuna, Indonesia on February 5, 2020. Photo: Muhammad Fahmi Dolli/Anadolu Agency via AFP

Perkasa is believed to see a post-retirement career for himself in politics, but if the experience of Moeldoko and his predecessor, Nurmantyo, is any guide, five stars are no guarantee of a successful career in Indonesia’s seething politics.           

More interesting for now is who will take over as TNI chief in 2023, just months out from the 2024 elections when the military will be called on to provide security during another heated campaign period pitting nationalist-secularists against Muslim conservatives.

Short of the unexpected, most bets are already on current Bali-based Nusa Tenggara regional commander Major General Maruli Simanjuntak, 51, the special forces-trained son-in-law of influential chief maritime minister Luhut Panjaitan.

Popular among fellow officers and, like Perkasa, a former chief of the presidential security force, Simanjuntak will now be expected to follow a familiar career path through the Jakarta command and on to the Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad).

He would be the first Christian appointed to the top armed forces post since the legendary General Benny Moerdani, who was military commander between 1983 and 1988 when Christian officers like Panjaitan himself were at the forefront of the officer corps.

While Muslim officers have come to dominate the upper echelons in the past 20 years, thereby removing a point of friction in the ranks, there might still be concerns over giving Simanjuntak the position ahead of elections that in recent years have exposed such a sharp divide between nationalist and Islamic voters.

But it is worth noting there was little outcry over Widodo jumping over more senior officers in his choice of General Listyo Sigit Prabowo, 52, as national police chief, the first Christian to occupy that post in 46 years.

Although he could have his term cut short by a new president in 2024, Prabowo is not due to retire until 2027, which would make him the longest-serving police chief since the first kepolri, Raden Soekanto Tjokrodaniatmodjo (1945-59).

Simanjuntak’s career almost came to a premature end in 2013 when special forces (Kopassus) operators raided a prison near Jogjakarta and executed four prisoners accused of the murder of an off-duty colleague during a nightclub fracas.

Because the then colonel had only taken over the Kopassus Group One command at midnight that evening, he was exonerated from any responsibility for the incident, which led to eight soldiers receiving prison sentences ranging from 21 months to 11 years.