The Rise and Fall of Military Candidates in the Indonesian Elections

Nov 2008

Elections are an indication of several things: the popularity or otherwise of the government as well as other political trends. In a complex country like Indonesia, they also involve efforts by groups within the power elite to secure victory or by those how have lost out to make a comeback. Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, the military elite have lost much of their political clout and are now officially excluded from the political arena. It is therefore no accident that many retired officers, in particular army generals, are keen to return to the political arena. Many have been nominated as candidates in the 2009 parliamentary elections while several heavyweights have put themselves forward for the presidential election later in the year.

This can be interpreted in several ways. For more than three decades, Suharto presided over a military dictatorship whose key doctrine was Dwifungsi, or Dual Function. This granted the military the right to play a role in politics, which they exploited on a massive scale. Although members of the armed forces were not allowed to vote, they were allotted up to 100 seats in the national and regional parliaments. However, after the fall of Suharto, the Dwifungsi was thrown into the dustbin of history.

Throughout its history, Indonesia has had several experiences of military involvement in politics. During the so-called liberal era (1952- 1959), the military were disgruntled because they were excluded from the political arena and set up their own political party, IPKI, (Ikatan Pendukung Kemerdekaan Indonesia, Union to Support Indonesian Independence) which performed woefully in the 1955 election. Their political aspirations re-emerged when several military organisations established a new platform called Golkar, (Golongan Karya, Functional Groups) in 1964. The intention was that Golkar would counter the growing influence of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party. Golkar became the powerful political machine of Suharto and his generals after they seized power in October 1965 and purged the left-wing movement.

For almost 30 years Golkar remained the sole political vehicle of the military but it was constantly dogged by internal power struggles. In the 1990s, Suharto became increasingly isolated and decided to ‘civilianise’ the top ranks of Golkar. In 1993, he appointed a civilian Harmoko as chairman, and five years later, Akbar Tandjung took over. Last year, Jusuf Kalla, the country’s vice-president, was elected as the party’s chairman. These developments ushered in the third phase of military involvement in politics: with their role now in decline, several key generals began to set up political organisations outside Golkar.

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