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Indonesia's 2024 Presidential Elections and the Military

15 Sep 2021
By Robert Lowry

Indonesia’s presidential election is over two years away, but the candidates and political parties are gearing up. Most of the candidates are civilians, but some are aspiring retired military candidates. 

An odd feature of the presidential elections, set for 21 February 2024, is that candidates need the support of parties or coalitions of parties that garnered at least 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the vote in the previous election because the parliamentary and presidential elections are now run concurrently. So, it is theoretically possible for a candidate to be elected while his supporting parties fail to win significant electoral support. However, this is unlikely because parties linked most directly to the two or three candidates to emerge benefit from that association.

Major Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY), the son of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leads the Democratic Party (PD), one of only two parties currently forming the parliamentary opposition since the National Amanah Party (PAN) joined the former six-party government coalition in August. PD won only 7.7 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections so would need to gain the backing of one of the three major parties or at least two other parties for AHY to have any prospect of being nominated for either president or VP. Although he has seen off a leadership challenge and has consolidated the party, he has so far failed to show any political flair.

Generals Moeldoko and Gatot Nurmantyo were the two most political chiefs of the army and the TNI in the post-Suharto/Wiranto era, and both have smoldering ambitions for the top job. Moeldoko has no party backing – a coup by disaffected PD members earlier this year failed to unseat AHY and install Moeldoko as leader. Legal processes are ongoing but are unlikely to change the outcome.

Having been an ex officio member of the cabinet as TNI chief and Jokowi’s chief of staff since January 2018, Moeldoko has the experience for the job but has shown little political acumen as his foiled bid to unseat AHY and his promotion of Ivermectin show. No TNI candidate would be offered a vice presidential ticket by a fellow TNI candidate, and Moeldoko has nothing to offer a civilian candidate, so his ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled.

Nurmantyo claims to have been approached by an unnamed party but has yet to decide whether he will run. Sceptics suggest that the invitation came from a minor party that did not obtain the parliamentary threshold in 2019 or that his claim is self-promotion, rather than an invitation from a major party, as he hardly rates a mention in the polls. Nevertheless, as a supporter of ousting the former Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok), in 2016, he could be drafted as a vice-presidential candidate by a party like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) seeking to attract disenchanted former Prabowo voters. But again, without the backing of another party he has very little else to offer.

Jokowi came to the presidency from the governorship of Jakarta and several Java based governors are in contention. The only retired military governor is Lieutenant General Edy Rahmayadi (Rtd) of North Sumatra, whose last military command was KOSTRAD, the Army Strategic Reserves Command. Born in Aceh to a Malay father and mother of Javanese descent automatically nullifies any presidential ambitious he may harbour. Nevertheless, backed by Prabowo affiliated parties, he won the governorship with 75 percent of the vote defeating Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P) candidate and former governor of Jakarta, Djarot Saiful Hidayat. Edy is not without political acumen, has spent a lot of his military service in Sumatra, and was chair of the national soccer league (PSSI) from 2016 to 2019, so he does have the potential to be a vice presidential candidate to a Javanese civilian presidential aspirant, notwithstanding his relationship with Prabowo.

Appealing to off-Java voters however might have been undercut by the first direct election of a Muslim religious leader to the vice presidency in 2019. Having gained that office, the pressure will be on to create a tradition from which two traditional religious parties (PAN and PKB) could benefit – invariably to the detriment of outer island aspirants and voters.

General Luhut Pandjaitan (Rtd), a Batak Christian, has occasionally been mentioned as a possible VP candidate. He is a businessman and philanthropist and one of the longest serving and most capable ministers of the post-Suharto era and a senior member of Golkar. But as a Christian, no party would see advantage in having him on the ticket, especially in the current political climate. However, he is one of Jokowi’s most long-standing and effective electoral backers and does see himself as a king maker.

Lieutenant General Prabowo’s Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) is on a roll consolidating its organisational base and hoping to capitalise on his candidature to become the leading vote getter in the elections. Although Prabowo holds a narrow lead in most aggregates of polls, he faces a number of challenges, assuming his health holds up. He will be 72 years old in 2024, a youth bulge will increase in the percentage of the youth vote, he has strained if not broken his 2019 coalition by joining the government coalition, and a proposed constitutional amendment, if passed, would allow Jokowi to run for a third term if he and PDI-P so chose.

Prabowo, a scion of a Javanese aristocratic (priyayi) family, courted the Islamists in his previous election bids, but some of them will seek an alternative forcing Prabowo to move to the centre of the Islamist-Pluralist divide in 2024. For this he will need the support of at least one of the other major parties that supported Jokowi. They are all seeking to promote their own candidates, but few have much electoral appeal. This will force them to turn to the Java governors or Prabowo.

Although Luhut and Prabowo have been political opponents since their time in the TNI, Luhut was pivotal in bringing Prabowo into the coalition. This had the effect of reducing parliamentary opposition and providing Prabowo with ministerial experience that could make him more attractive to pluralist voters seeking a candidate who can promote economic growth and contain the ever present volcanic rumblings of radical Islam. As a senior member of Golkar and representative of the interests of minority communities, Luhut will be among those having a major influence on the outcome.

Bob Lowry is author of The Armed Forces of Indonesia (Allen & Unwin, 1996) and former president of the ACT Branch of the AIIA. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.