Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo confirmed on Monday that he had nominated his air force chief to succeed the head of the country’s armed forces (TNI), an army general who has stirred controversy recently by making political comments.
Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto will replace Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, who is due to retire in March 2018, as the supreme commander of the 475,000 personnel who serve in the various branches of Indonesia’s military, Jokowi said in a press statement.
“I believe he has strong capability and leadership and can bring the TNI in a more professional direction according to its identity, namely as the people’s army, combatants’ army, the national army, and the professional army,” the president said.
Tjahjanto’s name has been submitted to the House of Representatives (DPR), which needs to approve it, officials said.
Tjahjanto has close ties to Jokowi. Prior to his appointment as air force chief, Tjahjanto served as Jokowi's military secretary for a year in 2015. He was also the defense ministry’s inspector-general. On top of that, he commanded an air base in Solo, Central Java, when Jokowi served as the city’s mayor from 2005 to 2012.
“So the selection of the air chief to become the TNI’s commander is more on the preference of President Jokowi,” Andrianto, a Jakarta-based political analyst, told BenarNews.
The process to confirm Tjahjanto is scheduled to be completed before the parliamentary recess this month, said Taufik Kurniawan, the House vice chairman.
“Before the Dec. 13 recess, we could see the results of the fit-and-proper tests,” Kurniawan told reporters in Jakarta, referring to the parliamentary panel that would handle the confirmation proceedings.
Effendi Simbolon, a member of Commission I, the House panel that oversees defense, said his team would assess Tjahjanto’s integrity in maintaining the military’s professionalism, as well as his loyalty to the country.
“I expect it will be smooth and he will become the commander of the TNI,” he said.
No signs of political ambition
Pangi Syarwi Chaniago, executive director of Jakarta-based Voxpol Center Research and Consulting, said Jokowi could have chosen Tjahjanto because the 54-year-old military officer had not publicly shown signs of any political ambition.
He said Jokowi might have preferred a military chief that he could control, not someone coveting political power.
In October, the president urged the military to keep away from politics and remain loyal to the government following Nurmantyo’s false claims a month earlier, in which he warned that a non-military institution planned to import 5,000 firearms illegally.
Nurmantyo has not publicly commented on that controversy after the chief security minister corrected his claim about the guns.
The fiery military chief has been accused of taking advantage of his position to gain political power in preparation for a possible presidential run in 2019.
“It is clear that the president must have been traumatized, and does not want to repeat having a military commander who plays with opinions, sentiments and political issues that are electorally profitable,” Chaniago said.
“General Gatot is indeed a potential presidential candidate,” he added, using Nurmantyo’s first name.
Nurmantyo has improved his political stature but has courted controversy by issuing statements that appeal to both nationalists and Islamic voters in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
In September this year, the four-star general attended an event hosted by an Islamic political party, where he warned that communists had become a renewed threat for Indonesia.
He also ordered soldiers to watch a Suharto-era propaganda film depicting the killings of six army generals during an alleged military coup in September 1965.
During the 2014 presidential election, Widodo was subjected to a smear campaign online that claimed he was a descendant of communists and had Chinese ancestry. The campaign coincided with a drop in his high approval ratings at the time.
In October, Nurmantyo again became the subject of controversy when he was barred from boarding a flight to the United States due to “security protocols,” but he decided to cancel the trip after the issue was quickly resolved.
That incident, during which Gatot was scheduled to attend a conference in Washington D.C. at the invitation of Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, led to an apology from American Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Potential vice-presidential bet?
According to Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director executive at the Jakarta think-tank Indonesian Political Indicator, Nurmantyo could potentially become Jokowi’s vice-presidential running mate in the 2019 presidential election.
“Gatot has the potential to be Jokowi’s secret weapon,” he said.
A new survey conducted by a Jakarta-based research firm, Indo Barometer, put Nurmantyo as one of four strongest vice-presidential bets.
Nurmantyo’s electability reached 6.9 percent, in the same rank with Agus Harimurti Yudhono, the son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s previous president; and Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the former Jakarta governor who is now in jail after his blasphemy conviction. Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan garnered 10.5 percent electability, according to the survey.
Asked to react to Tjahjanto’s nomination, Nurmantyo expressed hope that his successor would conquer the challenges faced by military commanders.
“Do not ask me, but ask the president because it would be the president who will use the commander who will replace me based on the challenges of the task ahead,” Nurmantyo told Indonesian state news agency Antara.