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Old faces in Indonesia’s new cabinet

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In Brief

Three days after being inaugurated as the president of Indonesia for a second five-year term, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo announced his new cabinet. The appointment of former general and leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Prabowo Subianto, as the new defence minister could spell further trouble for Indonesian democracy.


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Prabowo ran against Jokowi in both the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. Both times he lost and both times he refused to accept the result of the election, triggering protests. The riots that followed the Indonesian election commission’s release of the 2019 election results were so severe that nine people lost their lives. Yet in a few months Prabowo has gone from vehemently refusing to accept the election result to willing appointee as defence minister.

Sadly for Indonesia’s democratic reputation, this type of political expediency is nothing new. Since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, Indonesian politics has been severely hampered by entrenched oligarchic interests. Emblematic of this was then vice president Jusuf Kalla’s confirmation in February 2019 that he had granted Prabowo and his brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo the concession of approximately 220,000 hectares of land in East Kalimantan, where the proposed new capital will be built.

Conveniently, this much-needed financial windfall came shortly after Prabowo finally accepted the 2019 election result and while Jokowi was busy considering the makeup of his next cabinet. Refusal to accept the election result was likely part of a well-executed plan to gain political leverage, geared towards securing this very outcome.

Jokowi likely granted Prabowo the concession in order to secure support for his ambitious economic reform and infrastructure spending agenda in the next parliament. Jokowi’s presidential legacy will hinge on his ability to further stimulate economic growth, which is why he is willing to make concessions in other areas to secure support for his economic policy reforms.

The outpouring of disappointment at Prabowo’s appointment is because he has been accused of human rights abuses. These relate to his deployments with Kopassus (Indonesian Special Forces) to East Timor during its occupation by Indonesia and the kidnapping and torture of democracy activists during the anti-government demonstrations of 1998.

But appointments of ex-generals who have had human rights allegations levelled at them to high-level political positions is nothing new. Prabowo’s immediate predecessor, Ryamizard Ryacudu, a former commander of Kostrad (the Army Strategic Reserve Command), has been linked to allegations of human rights violations in Papua. And outgoing Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs (Kemenko Polhukam) Wiranto, another retired Suharto-era general, has been indicted by a United Nations panel for atrocities in East Timor.

Another significant appointment is that of Mohammed Mahfud, who is replacing Wiranto. This comes only two weeks after Wiranto was stabbed by an affiliate of the Indonesian terrorist organisation Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD). Mahfud served as a defence minister under former president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and is a former Constitutional Court chief justice. He was slated to be Jokowi’s vice-presidential running mate for the 2019 election, before Jokowi’s coalition partners pressured him into choosing Ma’ruf Amin instead for his religious credentials. He is the first civilian appointee to this role, which should help put a check on Prabowo’s power, especially given Kemenko Polhukam leads the broader security establishment, including the defence ministry.

Long-term Jokowi ally Luhut Pandjaitan, another ex-Kopassus general, not only retained his position as Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs but had his title upgraded to Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment — even though he faces numerous corruption allegations. No doubt Jokowi is hoping that Luhut and his military academy classmate and close associate Fachrul Razi — the newly appointed Minister for Religious Affairs — will contain Prabowo.

The appointment of Prabowo is a far cry from the progress many human rights activists hoped for when Jokowi was first elected in 2014. Many believed Jokowi would be a breath of fresh air because he was a humble furniture seller before becoming mayor of Solo and not a product of the Suharto-era powerbase. Conversely, Jokowi’s background has made his political position weaker. He has had to compromise with more hard-line forces to secure support from the entrenched political elite.

Compromise has resulted in the implementation of numerous draconian policies, including a raft of proposed revisions to the Criminal Code that would, among other things, make it illegal to criticise the president. These proposed changes and the gutting of Indonesia’s revered anti-corruption commission triggered protests that left two students dead. Jokowi has since agreed to suspend the amendments but only until the new parliament is inaugurated.

The broader implication of Prabowo’s appointment is that parliament will likely consist of an anaemic opposition, with only the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) taking the role of opposition seriously. While this might create a placid legislature that will rubber stamp Jokowi’s ambitious reforms, it is a further blight on Indonesia’s democratic health.

Twenty-one years on from the fall of Suharto and the beginning of the Reformasi period, Indonesia continues to witness significant democratic regression. The lack of recognition of this problem domestically will mean many continue to blindly support Jokowi down the path of further illiberalism.

Thomas Paterson is a recent Master’s graduate of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

(This article was submitted for publication to East Asia Forum on 3 November 2019.)

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