Southeast AsiaPolitics

Military minds aim to keep Widodo in power

Indonesian leader taps ex-top brass to marshal an election win in 2019 through the 'Bravo' and 'Charlie' task forces that helped carry the day at the 2014 polls

Jakarta, September 4, 2018 3:54 PM (UTC+8)
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo salutes during the country's 73rd Independence Day celebrations at the presidential palace in Jakarta on August 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

When then-presidential contender Joko Widodo looked to be faltering in the run-up to the 2014 election, it was only the arrival of the cavalry, in the form of retired general Luhut Panjaitan’s army of volunteers, that blunted a late charge from rival candidate Prabowo Subianto.

The lesson from that campaign season was clear: when the chips are down, Widodo cannot afford to rely on his ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), the second-ranking Golkar Party or any of the seven other political parties in his coalition government.

Panjaitan, the maritime coordinating minister and often seen as Widodo’s chief political adviser, is now already in the process of reviving not one, but two appropriately-coded task forces, Bravo and Charlie, to help the president win a second term at next April’s election.

A Christian Batak from North Sumatra, the special forces veteran was as surprised as anyone at the Indonesian leader’s last-minute and controversial choice of conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, as his running mate.

Until then, the favorite had been Mahfud MD, a former Constitutional Court chief justice. But on a helicopter trip he took around East Java Muslim boarding houses a week before the nomination deadline, Panjaitan discovered influential clerics were less than enthusiastic about the choice.

Retired General and Cabinet minister Luhut Panjaitan is taking charge of President Joko Widodo’s re-election efforts. Photo: Youtube

Key coalition partner Golkar was likewise skeptical, mindful of Mahfud’s role in trying to disband strongman Suharto’s all-powerful machine in the wake of his 1998 downfall after 32 years in power.

PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri was said to be dead set against Mahfud’s selection as well, fearing he would make a run for the presidency himself in 2024 when her daughter, Social Affairs Coordinating Minister Puan Maharani is expected to be a candidate.

Despite Amin’s reputation as the architect of a series of fatwas against secularism, liberalism and pluralism – and the added danger of him being a heart-beat away from the presidency – Megawati comforted herself in thinking the septuagenarian Amin was too old to have a political future beyond the next five years.

Insiders say Panjaitan accepted Widodo’s decision as a sign of prevailing political realities and has climbed back in the saddle, intent on trying to shore up support among ethnic Chinese and other minorities who are having second thoughts about which candidate to support with Amin on the ticket.

Government sources say the president’s official “success team” could be 200-strong, unwieldy at best, but in an effort to improve the organization he wants it to be led by dynamic Erick Thohir, the 47-year-old chief organizer of Jakarta’s successful Asian Games.

A US-educated businessman and owner of the Inter Milan and DC United football clubs, Thohir was brought into the Asiad job in 2015 in an effort to keep spending down; his elder brother, Garibaldi, is chief executive of Adaro Energy, a major coal miner and power developer.

Erick Thohir, chairman of the Indonesia Asian Games 2018 Organizing Committee, addresses media in Jakarta, November 2017. Photo: AFP/Goh Chai Hin

The president used the games to kick-start his campaign, riding into the opening ceremony on a motorcycle, openly attending some of the sporting events (where Indonesia won a record 31 medals), and giving a televised speech to the closing ceremony from the earthquake-hit island of Lombok while surrounded by displaced survivors.

It is understood Widodo rejected the idea of presidential chief of staff Moeldoko, 61, a former armed forces chief, to head the team, preferring a fresher more youthful face in an effort to attract the country’s huge population of millennial voters.

Although Widodo can expect help this time from Golkar’s well-tuned electoral machine, memories are still fresh of what happened in 2014 when Widodo saw a 10 percentage-point lead crumbling, with one unpublished Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) poll putting him only 0.6% ahead near polling day.

For all of his everyman appeal, the former town mayor was not widely seen to offer the strength of leadership many voters quietly yearned for after a decade of weak governance under president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose Democrat Party is now a Prabowo ally despite his rejection of Yudhoyono’s son as a running mate.

However, much of the blame for the 2014 slump rested with PDI-P, which struggled to match Prabowo’s often-ruthless, well-funded and disciplined machine supported by a very effective Islamist network, particularly in the most populous province of West Java.

PDI-P leader Megawati, embittered at being overshadowed by Widodo, a candidate she regarded as a party functionary, was criticized for not getting more involved, though she did feel sufficiently concerned to replace her daughter as the head of his campaign team.

Megawati Sukarnoputri looks at a booth displaying memorabilia, April 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

But when that didn’t help either, Panjaitan formed Bravo Five, a 70-strong support group comprising 21 other retired generals and about 40 civilian volunteers; working out of a house in Jakarta’s old-rich suburb of Menteng, it helped immensely to keep the campaign energized and on track.

Now it is being revived, working out of a different house in the same suburb and headed by former deputy army chief Fachrul Razi, 71, a long-time Panjaitan associate and member of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) of retired armed forces chief Wiranto, 71, the current political coordinating minister.

Others on the team include Panjaitan’s sister, former ambassador to Argentina Nurmala Kartini Sjahrir, 68, and retired generals Suaidi Marasabessy and Saurip Kadi, the latter a Yudhoyono classmate and Wiranto’s special assistant.

Marasabessy, 71, an Ambonese and ex-Sulawesi regional commander, was previously associated with Yudhoyono’s Democrats. Kadi, 67, a Yudhoyono classmate, earned a reputation as a maverick whose career ended in a dusty office after he wrote a book disclosing details of a string of military scandals.

Panjaitan has also recruited former cabinet secretary Andi Widjajanto, 47, to head Team Charlie, which will focus on drumming up support in Aceh, West Sumatra, West Java, Gorontalo and West Nusa Tenggara, the five provinces where Widodo lost to Prabowo in 2014.

Lombok is in West Nusa Tenggara, which to jaundiced political observers partly explains Widodo’s appearance there during the Asiad’s closure and why senior government officials have been beating path to the island to ensure that relief work is on track, including the re-building of 70,000 homes.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C ) visiting earthquake-affected people at a shelter in Lombok. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Agus Suparto

Popular West Nusa Tenggara Governor Muhammad Zainal Majdi, 46, a progressive Muslim scholar in his second and final terms, was previously on the short list for Widodo’s running mate and may well be in the frame for a Cabinet post, particularly if he is able to turn around the president’s electoral fortunes in his area.

Widjajanto, a youthful political asset himself, is the son of the late Theo Syafei, a special forces general who remained a staunch ally of founding president Sukarno’s daughter in her conflict with president Suharto during the dying days of the New Order regime.

But Andi’s subsequent estrangement from Megawati led to Widodo reluctantly removing him from the Cabinet after nine months in the job, a casualty of a much more bitter falling out between the PDI-P matriarch and current State Enterprise Minister Rini Soemarno, once her closest friend.

As befits the Indonesian military’s cultural obsession with seniority, Team Bravo comprises generals who graduated from the military academy in the mid-1970s. The retired senior officers in Team Charlie, otherwise known as Cakra, the Hindu god Vishnu’s mythical weapon, all graduated after 1977.

Widodo may also get help from another unexpected quarter. Deposed Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, still serving a two-year prison term for blasphemy for one of his election campaign speeches, has now reportedly changed his mind and decided to apply for parole as early as December.

Newly divorced from an adulterous wife, an affair that only came to light at the height of his political difficulties, the ethnic Chinese ex-governor will have to step carefully in helping his former political ally now that he has teamed up with the same man who accused him of blasphemy and was a prosecution witness at his trial.

Purnama’s first priority after getting out from behind bars is something far more personal. That’s his pending marriage to the policewoman who served as his wife Veronica’s bodyguard and who stuck by him while he was incarcerated at the Police Mobile Brigade’s detention center in South Jakarta.

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