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The martial roots of Indonesia's democracy

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7 July 2011 12:35

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

Last week saw confirmation of a senior command change for Indonesia's Army (TNI-AD) that could have important implications for Indonesia's political landscape.

In a widely anticipated appointment, Lieutenant General Pramono Edhie Wibowo was promoted as Army Chief of Staff to replace the outgoing General George Toisutta. The real significance of Wibowo's appointment lies in what it reveals about Indonesia's civil-military relations. The emergence of another general who could be a front-running candidate in Indonesia's 2014 presidential election reveals the folly in equating lack of formal political representation by Indonesia's military with declining political influence.

Wibowo has perfect political-military lineage. He is the brother-in-law of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and the son of General Sarwo Edhie, a prominent figure in Indonesia's early New Order period. Sarwo Edhie commanded Indonesia's Army Para Commando Regiment, an elite Army special forces unit deployed by Suharto to defend and consolidate the New Order in the tumultuous months following Indonesia's 1965 coup attempt.

Sarwo Edhie became a prominent and popular New Order figure but was increasingly sidelined by Suharto, who resented Sarwo Edhie's criticisms about corruption and viewed him as a potential rival. Suharto relegated Sarwo Edhie to non-strategic military commands and foreign affairs posts, ensuring any leadership ambitions were kept in check.

For his son Wibowo, however, there are no such obstacles.

Backed by SBY, Wibowo is destined to become Indonesia's most senior military officer in 2013, when it's Army's turn at the top job, and end his military career at the mandatory retirement age of 56 in time to nominate himself as a presidential candidate for the 2014 elections.

Family political dynasties are popular in Southeast Asia and Indonesia is no exception. Nomination as a presidential candidate would be the perfect marriage of political dynasties between the Yudhoyonos and the martial lineage of Sarwo Edhie. History matters, and Sarwo Edhie's name is one that still resonates in Indonesia, with benefits for his son.

Wibowo would be the perfect successor to President SBY, a moderate former general who has steered Indonesia on a path of impressive economic growth and relative political stability, despite rising disenchantment over aspects of his leadership.

Despite thirteen years of democratic reform, Indonesian political parties want generals. TNI's intelligence networks, its superior fund-raising capabilities and the command experience of its officers are valuable assets for political parties. TNI will continue to shape Indonesia's political future for some time to come.

Photo by Flickr user Studio Titus.

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