Indonesia election and the role of its powerful military

Written by on April 12, 2019

Jakarta, Indonesia – When Robertus Robet, a human rights activist, joined the student protests to topple Indonesian dictator Soeharto nearly 30 years ago, he sang a song criticising the military without getting into trouble.

Earlier this year, Robet sang the song again to show his opposition to President Joko Widodo‘s decision to allow active military officers to take jobs in government ministries. He was duly arrested.

“No one was offended when I sang the song before,” Robet told Al Jazeera. “I said in my speech I have nothing against the plan. Yes, they can [get jobs in the administration], but first, they have to retire.” 

The Indonesian military, commonly known by the acronym TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia), was forced to reform after the fall of Soeharto, losing the seats it held in the national parliament during the authoritarian’s 32 years in power.

It also had to give up its dual role – to defend the country, but also to enmesh itself in political life across the archipelago.

Banned formally from politics since 2004, neither the soldiers nor the police are allowed to vote.

But even with the legal restrictions, the generals remain a powerful force.

Joko Widodo, the former mayor of Solo who became president in 2014, was the first Indonesian leader to come from outside the traditional elite. While he pitched himself as a democrat reformist, he has come increasingly close to the military.

“He has built up a personal network of trusted officers who had worked with him since early in his political career,” Antonius Made Tony Supriatma, a visiting fellow in the Indonesian Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, wrote in a paper.

“No doubt, despite the military being banned from politics, Jokowi [Widodo] knows full well that the armed forces are still the most important political player in Indonesia.”

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