It’s a generals’ election
Ex-generals hope old boys’ network will boost chances but military’s top brass won’t take sides
It has been billed as the battle of the generals.
The July 5 presidential election in Indonesia will feature three retired generals – Mr Wiranto, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Mr Agum Gumelar.
And they come with a star-studded entourage of old soldiers – a fact that is conspicuous in the campaign teams of other rival contenders.
Mr Bambang reportedly has about 15 former generals under his command. Mr Wiranto has 12, and Mr Agum, three.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri has three retired officers working for her, while another presidential candidate, Mr Amien Rais, has one.
Critics warn of a return of militarism in Indonesia.
Is the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) making a comeback in politics?
The signs are all there with veteran generals tapping into their vast political network in the regions, drawing up military-style strategies for the campaign and engaging in psychological warfare against their opponents.
But it is a charge the TNI top brass are quick to dismiss.
Military chief Endriartono Sutarto has declared repeatedly that the armed forces will stay out of politics.
Indeed, he has even threatened sanctions against soldiers if they breach his order.
‘I am serious about keeping the TNI neutral during the general election,’ he said last week after a meeting with senior military commanders.
There is nothing new in the message here.
It reinforces the ‘new thinking’ of the TNI leadership which decided after Suharto’s fall in May 1998 to leave national politics to the civilians.
What is significant is the target of that message – civilian politicians and especially retired generals who are seeking to enlist military backing for the election.
Clearly, there is no love lost between current and former generals who have been increasingly critical of the TNI’s failure to restore law and order in Indonesia.
The comments are also underscored by concerns that presidential aspirants could draw on the military territorial apparatus to work the ground for votes.
In the past, Indonesian politicians had sought to win the backing of military representatives in Parliament as a countervailing force against opponents.
They no longer hold legislative seats, but the appeal is still there, primarily because of their continued influence in the heartlands and provinces.
General Endriartono is really attempting to dismantle the intricate patron-client network between retired and active generals serving in territorial commands.
Historically, serving officers have been obliged to back their retired superiors.
Patronage ties within the TNI, and especially the army, became more dominant than the logic of military hierarchy and the chain of command.
Many retired generals continue to draw on the allegiances of army units and provinces they headed or from military academy classmates.
Gen Endriartono is clearly trying to unite rank and file in the armed forces as he cuts off inroads for past generals into the military establishment.
He is also trying to steer the TNI back on course for reform.
The military reform process started well in the initial phases.
In 1999, the TNI dismantled its socio-political division and declared formally its intention not to dabble in national politics.
It also resisted former president Abdurrahman Wahid’s attempt to impose emergency rule to preserve his own power in 2001.
But since then, the reform agenda has been wavering, as reflected by its White Paper on defence last year.
It spelt out the inherent right of the TNI to have special powers to ‘intervene’ in state affairs when needed.
The TNI had been able to assert itself over the last two years partly because politicians were unwilling to disaffect the military openly given its far-reaching influence.
Gen Endriartono might have laid out the OB markers for the TNI’s involvement in politics. But he can only go that far.
Individual military officers – linked to any one of the five candidates and acting on their own initiative – are still likely to dabble in the election process in the provinces.
The onus really is on the civilian politicians and retired military officers to stop dragging the generals into the fray.