(Bloomberg) -- Standing before thousands of soldiers, Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto delivered a blunt message intended to resonate far beyond the army’s strategic command headquarters in East Java.
The Indonesian military’s neutrality in upcoming elections is "non-negotiable", he told 1,500 troops late last month at an army base in Malang. "The politics of the TNI is the politics of the state."
Where his predecessor Gatot Nurmantyo was perceived as harboring political ambitions and courted controversy with notions of a resurgent communist threat, the new chief has signaled the military is set to fall in behind President Joko Widodo at a critical juncture for Indonesia.
As the first president to come from outside the military and political elite, Widodo last month moved to further shore up links with Indonesia’s armed forces, appointing former TNI chief General Moeldoko as his chief of staff and former special forces commander General Agum Gumelar as an adviser.
“President Joko Widodo’s recent appointments -- during last month’s mini-reshuffle -- are clearly aimed at strengthening his ties with the military,” said Peter Mumford, Southeast Asia director at Eurasia Group. "Surrounding himself with more generals is part of the president’s shift to a more conservative stance and image as he tries to widen his support base ahead of regional and local elections this year and the presidential vote in 2019.”
For Widodo, known as Jokowi, the appointment of Tjahjanto also provides a bulwark against the Islamic groups that last year lead a bitter campaign against Jakarta’s then governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or ‘Ahok’, a Christian, and threatened to engulf the president. Sectarian unrest is not only a risk for Indonesia’s reform process but to Widodo himself as he prepares for a long presidential campaign and seeks to woo hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment.
And while the world’s biggest Muslim country faces a growing influence from radical Islam at home, Indonesia is also seen as crucial in efforts to contain regional security risks.
“Indonesia is hugely important in terms of countering the threat of terrorism, both because of the security risks within the country itself but also the potential for extremists in Indonesia to travel overseas, as has already occurred, to become foreign fighters, drawn into conflicts such as the insurgency in Marawi, Philippines last year," said Mumford.
Within weeks of his appointment in December, Tjahjanto moved swiftly to assert his authority over the ranks, purging dozens of senior officers who’d been recently appointed to high-ranking positions by his predecessor.
He also made a fresh appeal for the military to be given a greater role in the fight against terrorism. In a letter to the parliamentary committee examining Indonesia’s terrorism laws, he wrote that the current bill limits Indonesia’s efforts.
“Although ties between the government and military are stable, this is essential but not sufficient to tackle terrorism and other threats," said Mumford. "The growing Islamization of the political environment could make it harder to tackle terrorism if it prevents the parliament passing tough new anti-terror laws."
Muhammad Syafi, a Gerindra lawmaker and the chairman of the committee, said the letter was "just a proposal" that can be accepted or rejected. "But the TNI will not be involved in law enforcement because that is the responsibility of the police," he said in an interview.
While the military’s influence in politics has waned since Suharto’s 32-years in power ended in 1998, it remains a prominent fixture in Indonesian society -- many former generals enjoy powerful roles in the country’s political arena, including holding key positions in Widodo’s cabinet. Twenty years since Suharto’s fall, its push for more power is raising concerns the TNI wants to expand its presence in civilian life.
The Indonesian military has not responded to requests for comment. But a senior official from the Security Ministry said that terrorism "continues to pose a serious threat" that no single law enforcement could deal with alone.
Indonesia is set to hold simultaneous elections in 171 regions including 17 provinces across the country in June, followed by a long presidential campaign that starts in September and could take almost a year to conclude.
The potential for these polls "to inflame religious and ethnic tensions" means the loyalty of the TNI commander and his ability to work closely with other key security agencies "will be critical," Greta Nabbs-Keller, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Policy Futures said.
The former TNI commander was accused by some of trying to push his own political agenda. "The combination of Nurmantyo’s political proximity to hard-line Islamic groups, most obvious during the late 2016 anti-Ahok protests, and his xenophobic and proxy war discourse revealed a readiness to exploit social cleavages for personal political ambition," Nabbs-Keller said.
Jokowi and Tjahjanto, however, have had a close relationship since their days together in Solo, where the president served as mayor before becoming the Jakarta governor and Tjahjanto commanded the Abdurachman Saleh Airbase.
"Tjahjanto will be a very different TNI commander and one Jokowi can rely on as he wards off powerful opponents in his bid for a second presidential term,” she said.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.