Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has proposed Navy chief of staff Admiral Yudo Margono as the new commander of the Indonesian Military (TNI).
The House will conduct the formality of the fit-and-proper test next week and will almost surely endorse Yudo's nomination. The president will then install Yudo as the successor to Army Gen. Andika Perkasa.
Just like that. No controversy. Just like it was this time last year, and most likely, again this time next year.
But that is just the problem. The appointment of the top TNI job has become something like a game of musical chairs. It is changing hands so frequently that no chief will have stayed long enough to make an impact, let alone create or leave a legacy. This is the case with Andika and almost certainly with Yudo if he gets the job.
This is because the president keeps nominating officers who are nearing their mandatory retirement age of 58. Andika reaches that age next month. Yudo will have to retire by Nov. 26 of next year. Although the president has the prerogative to extend the military service of top generals in key positions such as the TNI chief, Jokowi has refrained from using it.
In spite of talk about building a professional and credible force free from politics, the appointment of the TNI chief has rarely been free from the politics of the day. Although the House has to approve the nomination, the president has always sent one name, and the House has always given the green light after going through the formalities.
The 2004 TNI Law requires the commander to be picked from one of the existing chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy or Air Force. The law says the job may be rotated between the three chiefs. Since rotation is not mandatory, politics has weighed heavily on the president's selection.
This was the case with the appointment of Andika last year, even knowing that he would hold the job for only one year. Historically, the top TNI job gives the holder promising career opportunities beyond the military. Andika's predecessor, Air Force Marshall (ret.) Hadi Tjahjanto, is now agrarian and spatial planning minister. Andika harbors presidential ambitions, and his name has been mentioned as potential candidate for president or vice president in the 2024 or 2029 elections. Having the position of TNI chief on your resume certainly strengthens your credentials.
Had Jokowi chosen Yudo last year, he would not have had to go through the process of selecting a candidate again this year, since Yudo would have been eligible to remain in the position until November 2023. Now that he has picked Yudo, he will have to find a replacement again next year.
Yudo would have been a shoo-in candidate last year, given his young age compared to Andika and the fact that he comes from the Navy. When Yudo was passed over for the nomination, pundits said he was too closely linked to the Nanggala submarine sinking tragedy in April 2021, in which all 53 crew members died. But if that was really the case, then Jokowi must have a short memory to be nominating Yudo this year.
Jokowi has few options at any rate. The current Army chief of staff, Gen. Dudung Abdurrachman, who was also in the running, is the same age as Yudo. Air Force chief of staff Marshall Fadjar Prasetyo is 56 years old so he would actually be the ideal candidate, but picking him would offend the Navy, which has been repeatedly passed over for the top TNI job.
The last time the Navy held the job was in 2010, with Admiral Agus Suhartono. Since then, three Army generals and an Air Force marshal have held the job. This is a reflection of the political strength of the Army, the largest of the three services in the TNI in terms of personnel and which also takes the lion's share of the defense budget.
If Yudo's appointment goes through, this will be the first time the TNI top job goes to the Navy under President Jokowi. This is ironic, since in his first presidential campaign in 2014, he promised to turn Indonesia into an Indo-Pacific maritime power befitting the world's largest archipelagic country.
Yudo's nomination was by no means certain in spite of the many supporting indicators. He went over the head of Jokowi to lobby Megawati Soekarnoputri, the chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). In June, he invited Megawati to christen the Navy's newest corvette, KRI Bung Karno, after the short popular name of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president and Megawati's father. In August, he invited Megawati to give a keynote speech in a seminar about Ratu Kalinyamat, a 16th century heroine of Java, on board the Navy's Class A tall ship, the Dewaruci. Jokowi is a card-carrying PDI-P member.
As Yudo's appointment is almost secured, speculation has already began about his successor in November 2023. Jokowi has the option of extending Yudo's term, although that would be unprecedented. His choice will likely go to the next Army chief of staff, who will have succeeded Dudung by then.
With the general elections in February 2024, he will want to have an Army general in charge of national security during the politically charged year, so pundits argue. This argument, which seems to hold currency, suggests a low opinion of the capability of the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force to lead the TNI. The political rumor mill surrounding the TNI chief appointment never stops, even if and when Yudo is appointed.
What we've heard
Sources revealed that President Jokowi had prepared a scenario for high-ranking officers who would lead the TNI in the period leading up to the 2024 elections. The two sources said that the officers prepared were people who had served closely with and served with President Jokowi.
In the Army, the source said that Jokowi had selected and considered several names including Lt. Gen. Maruli Simanjuntak (1992 graduate), Lt. Gen. Agus Subiyanto (1991 graduate), Maj. Gen. Tri Budi Utomo (1994 graduate), and Maj. Gen. Widi Prasetijono (1993 graduate). The four high-ranking officers have served as presidential aides and commanders of the presidential detail.
The source also said that current deputy Army chief of staff Agus stands a good chance to replace Gen. Dudung Abdurachman who will retire in November 2023. Maruli is also said to have a strong chance due to the fact that he is Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan's son-in-law. "The president wants to ensure that the people who lead TNI and Polri are officers whose term of office are long and extend beyond 2024." said the source.
According to a politician from a government coalition party, Jokowi paid close attention to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's experience when he stepped down in 2014. At that time, SBY lost his influence in a number of fields including TNI and Polri. "Jokowi doesn't want that to happen to him, so he has prepared people who will retire at least two years after he steps down," they said.
The same thing happened in the Air Force. Jokowi is said to have prepared Air Marshal Tony Harjono. He is the only graduate of the 1003 Udata Forces Academy who already bears three stars on his shoulder. Tony is a former presidential aide and was the President's Military Secretary. "He is being prepared to become Air Force chief of staff to replace Fadjar Prasetyo who will retire in April 2024," the source said.