The appointment of Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) commander General Andika Perkasa as the new chief of staff of the 300,000-strong Indonesian Army, four months out from the April 2019 elections, has been greeted with little surprise.

Gen Perkasa is a previous head of Joko Widodo’s Presidential Security Force and the son-in-law of Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, a former national intelligence director and influential palace insider.

Perkasa, 53, is now in line to take over from incumbent Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto as Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander as early as late next year.

Widodo can now rely on four strategically-placed loyalists, Perkasa, Tjahjanto, national police chief Gen Tito Karnavian and State Intelligence Agency (BIN) head Budi Gunawan to back his bid for re-election against the potential mobilization of Islamic conservatives behind opposition rival Prabowo Subianto.

Tjahjanto tipped as defense minister

If Widodo does win, analysts believe Tjahjanto will become defense minister in the new Cabinet, with presidential chief of staff Gen Moeldoko replacing political coordinating minister Wiranto, whose People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) is widely tipped to fail at April’s simultaneous legislative elections.

In cosying up to the security establishment, Widodo is drawing fire from academics and other civil society critics who see it as part of a steady decline in the quality of Indonesia’s democracy two decades after president Suharto’s fall from power.

Australian National University political scientist Thomas Power, for example, feels the Widodo Government has taken an authoritarian turn, highlighting in a recent paper what he claims is its “manipulation of powerful law enforcement and security institutions for narrow partisan purposes.”

But observers note that incumbents have always used the instruments of power to their advantage, particularly in a country known for its centralized leadership, and Widodo is clearly determined to take no chances in seeing off Prabowo’s challenge on April 17.

The appointment of Maj-Gen Maruli Simanjuntak, chief maritime minister Luhut Panjaitan’s son-in-law, as head of the Presidential Security Force only a week after Perkasa’s promotion, suggests an accommodation between Hendropriyono and Panjaitan, the two old generals Widodo often turns to for advice on security issues.

Political, family ties

Certainly, political and family ties appeared to prevail in a competition between Perkasa and two other well-regarded three-star generals, TNI Inspector General Muhammad Herindra, and National Defense Council secretary-general Doni Monardo, both former commanders of the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus).

Although Widodo described him as the “complete package,” pointing to a career that began in Kopassus and extended in later years to the West Kalimantan and education and training commands, Perkasa has none of the usual experience of his predecessors because of the eight years he spent in the United States.

During that self-paid sojourn between 2003 and 2011, he gained masters degrees at Vermont’s military-orientated Norwich University and the National War College, but he failed in his main goal of earning a doctorate in public policy at George Washington University. Returning to Indonesia in 2013, he rose to three-star general in the space of five years – a feat that has probably only been matched by Prabowo, then president Suharto’s son-in-law, who scaled the same swift promotional ladder during the 1990s.

When Perkasa was the chief presidential bodyguard, he sometimes irritated Widodo, according to insiders, by taking the job too literally, accompanying him everywhere instead of delegating subordinates as close-in security.

Meanwhile, Herindra, 54, and Monardo, 55, both followed a more traditional career path during a period when the US was enforcing an arms embargo that denied promising middle-ranking officers access to the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. The embargo was punishment for the government’s heavy-handed actions in East Timor, but analysts believe that foreclosing on IMET spawned a generation of mildly xenophobic officers who had little appreciation of the outside world.

Before his current job, Monardo had served the previous three years as head of the Maluku and West Java regional commands, but he would have been a difficult choice given he is a 1985 military academy graduate and nominally senior to Tjahjanto, the TNI commander, who entered service a year later.

Monardo earned his promotion to brigadier-general for his role as deputy commander of the task force which carried out Indonesia’s longest-range military operation to rescue the crew of the bulk carrier Sinar Kudus, taken by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2011.

Herindra edged out Perkasa at the top of their 1987 academy class, and went on to earn two master’s degrees during a career that began in a small district in Sumatra and progressed through a string of Kopassus posts before he gained his second star as the unit’s commander in 2016.

Intelligence links

Analysts believe Perkasa always had the inside running due to the influence of Hendropriyono, 73, an often-shadowy figure whose once close ties to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), fell apart earlier this year.

Hendropriyono’s son, Diaz, 40, who abandoned his earlier ambition to be a rock musician and went on to earn a degree in public administration at Virginia Tech, joined Widodo’s special staff in 2016 and also now sits on the board of state-owned telecommunications provider PT Telkomsel.

Earlier this year Diaz was made chairman of his father’s Indonesian Justice and Unity Party (PKPI), which has failed to gain parliamentary representation in the four elections it has contested, losing the single seat it won in 2004 because it failed to reach the vote threshold. It is unlikely to do any better this time.

Historically, Hendropriyono is best known for ruthlessly stamping out an extremist Muslim community in southern Sumatra in 1987. He later became transmigration minister in the transitional 1998-99 administration and then the first ministerial-level head of the newly-renamed State Intelligence Agency.

A protégé of Suharto-era strongman Benny Murdani, though not as close as some of his fellow officers who shared Murdani’s Christian faith, Hendropriyono was the first Indonesian official to recognize links between Al Qaeda and home-grown Indonesian militants.

Only a phone call away from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet in the period after 9/11 when the Megawati government still refused to acknowledge it had a problem, Hendropriyono was responsible for some of the agency’s first secret renditions from foreign soil.

The first was a boastful young Pakistani, Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, who was spirited out of Jakarta aboard a CIA jet in early 2002 and spent six years in detention at Guantanamo Bay before he was released in 2008 without ever being charged.

But the other, Omar Al Faruq, captured by a covert Perkasa-led snatch squad in south Jakarta in June 2002, was a hardcore militant who acted as a liaison between Al Qaeda and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, which only four months later was to carry out the game-changing Bali bombing that claimed 202 lives.