To many Indonesians, the 2014 presidential victory of former entrepreneur Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, signaled the rise of a new generation of civilian leaders. After 30 years of authoritarian rule under General Suharto, the country began to transition to a democratic system in 1998 when Suharto resigned following popular protests triggered by the 1997 financial crisis. But even post-Suharto, old players from the military continued to play a role in Indonesian politics. Jokowi’s election was seen as a sign that this tradition was finally fading, particularly since his main opponent was Prabowo Subianto, an ex-military commander who had the backing of the majority of the political parties. 

But the hope that came with Jokowi’s victory last year has deflated. Indonesia has watched its new president struggle to navigate a system that is still dominated by party oligarchs. With a hostile opposition-led parliament, Jokowi has been politically constrained and even his own party kept him on a tight leash during his first six months in office. Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former Indonesian president and the current leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the country’s largest party, appeared to have more influence than Jokowi on ministerial appointments and presidential decisions. Many of Jokowi’s political supporters have thus been left disappointed.

Joko "Jokowi" Widodo gestures during his presidential campaign in Jakarta, July 9, 2014.
Darren Whiteside / Reuters

To try to gain control and solidify his power base, Jokowi has turned to an old source of power in Indonesia—army generals. He has appointed a number of prominent military leaders and former generals to key positions: Gatot Nurmantyo, the current Army Chief of Staff, was tapped to head the military and Sutiyoso, a former army general, was picked to lead the state intelligence agency. Earlier, he had selected Ryamizard Ryacudu as his defense minister and Luhut Panjaitan as his chief of staff, both of whom were once high profile army generals under the Suharto regime.  

This marks the first time since the 1998 democratic reforms that military figures have featured prominently in top civilian positions. The number of high level military to civilian appointments in the administrations after Suharto had declined, particularly under former President Abdurahman Wahid. He selected a number of civilian figures to head the Ministry of Defense in a bid to drive security sector and military reforms.


Jokowi has not only made military appointments at the upper levels of government, but also reinstituted the military as a key force in carrying out his nation-building agenda, especially by utilizing regional military units. The military is divided into 13 commands known as kodams, which are dispersed throughout Indonesia and operate at the national level, all the way down to the village level. This multi-layered system allows military forces to embed themselves within the population and wield influence, particularly locally.

To try to gain control and solidify his power base, Jokowi has turned to another source of power in Indonesia—army generals...This marks the first time since the 1998 democratic reforms that military figures have featured prominently in top civilian positions.

Recently, the military signed about a dozen memoranda of understandings with various civilian agencies over the course of this year that give the military a role in nation-building. Although the memoranda stipulate that the military will play only a supportive role in overseeing key projects, in sectors such as agriculture and infrastructure, civilian agencies will most likely cede authority to the military. That is because the military is better at getting things done given its lingering control over, and the fear it can engender, at the municipal and village levels. These agreements could potentially replicate some aspects of Suharto’s “New Order,” a repressive system that injected the military into all aspects of civilian life.

One area where Jokowi is actively cooperating with the military is in achieving food self-sufficiency by 2017, a goal that mirrors Suharto’s legacy of reducing Indonesia’s dependence on imports in the 1980s. With a looming deadline, Jokowi has turned to the army to carry out his plans because its centralized command allows it to move and react more quickly than the bloated and bureaucratic civilian agencies, especially at the regional level. Already, the military is setting up structures to select lands for cultivation, mobilize manpower at the local level, monitor the provision of seeds and fertilizer, and collect data on crop yields.

Indonesian activists hold posters of Indonesian Former President Suharto during a protest to urge for his trial, September 27, 2007.
Beawiharta / Reuters

Jokowi’s  partnership is all the more disconcerting in light of the military’s expanding territorial invasion” programs, which consist of nationwide community projects that empower the locals, but are actually a method of gathering information and boosting nationalism. These projects are conducted by the military’s regional command in cooperation with the local government, related state agencies, and leaders of various ethnic groups.

In Aceh, for instance, the military offered free “civic education” to 5,000 students in June, but it was actually a form of ideological indoctrination meant to garner civilian support for a wide range of initiatives: food self-sufficiency, the conversion of land into paddy, soy, and corn fields, and the building of large infrastructures like the Krueng Kerto Dam in North Aceh.


As a pragmatic entrepreneur, Jokowi has the tendency to circumvent administrative processes to speed up outcomes. For instance, during his time as a mayor in Surakarta, a city in central Indonesia, he implemented a well-received and popular system in which his constituents could consult with him directly regarding local problems. In 2013, Jokowi, then governor of Jakarta, collaborated with military personnel on his flood prevention programs, his trash cleanup initiatives, the greening of the city, and relocating inhabitants to less flood-prone areas. The success of these efforts convinced him that cooperating with the military was an effective way to leapfrog bureaucratic bottlenecks.

These agreements could potentially replicate some aspects of Suharto’s “New Order,” a repressive system that injected the military into all aspects of civilian life.

As president, facing bureaucratic sluggishness on a national scale, Jokowi has had trouble asserting control over local governments to carry out his projects, particularly in achieving food self-sufficiency. It is no surprise that he has looked for partners with a track record of getting things done.

Although the military may help Jokowi govern more effectively, he has to be careful not to let the military undermine hard-fought democratic reforms. This includes government decentralization, which the military is known to resist since it has a vested interest in preserving the status-quo—its control of local administrations. Jokowi must also be careful not to allow his eagerness to use the military to get things done hurt the building of civilian capacity.   

Already, the poor accountability of military actions in Indonesia has increased the anxieties of the populace over the expansive role of the military into the civilians sphere. Abuses have become more common and are often left unresolved. Earlier this year, a group of farmers in Medan, the capital of the North Sumatra region, voiced complaints against the military for using intimidation to achieve the goals set forth in the memoranda of understandings. Then recently, in July, four members of the military whipped 29 illegal taxi drivers at the Soekarno Hatta Airport to punish them for operating without a license.

Although the military has no stated intention of returning to the frontline of electoral politics, Jokowi, and the civilian sector in general, need to proceed with caution when allowing it to participate in nation-building. Inevitably, over-reliance on the military will weaken the civilian government’s ability to govern the country. Roads might get build, and Indonesia might even achieve food self-sufficiency in a record two years, but in the long run, reinforcing a pattern of dependency will only slow the spectacular progress the country has made so far in solidifying its democracy.

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  • EMIRZA ADI SYAILENDRA is a Research Analyst at the Indonesia Program of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
  • More By Emirza Adi Syailendra