Luhut Binsar Panjaitan. (Antara Photo/Prasetyo Utomo)

Jokowi Ups His Game With Chief of Staff Post


JANUARY 02, 2015

Luhut Binsar Panjaitan. (Antara Photo/Prasetyo Utomo)

Jakarta. President Joko Widodo's recent appointment of former Army general Luhut Binsar Panjaitan as his chief of staff, an unprecedented position in Indonesian cabinets, has fueled speculation among political observers about the latest power play surrounding the president.

Luhut, a former industry and trade ministry and a senior adviser to the Golkar Party, was chosen to lead a new institution, and his position comes with perks equal to those of ministers.

"The presidential chief of staff will lead the Presidential Working Unit [UKP]. The presidential decree was signed today as well," Cabinet Secretary Andi Widjajanto said on the sidelines of Luhut's inauguration ceremony at the State Palace in Jakarta on Wednesday.

"The tasks [of the presidential chief of staff] include providing the president with strategic information, maintaining communication between [political] institutions and helping the president identify strategic issues."

Andi added that the new presidential institution was in no way related to the Presidential Delivery Unity for Development, Monitoring and Oversight, or UKP4, established by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his second term in office.

The UKP4 was established to monitor the government's development programs. It was involved in a wide range of issues, from simplifying investment bureaucracy to supervising carbon trading programs.

It was also tasked with monitoring and evaluating ministries' performances.

"The UKP4, as an institution, doesn't exist anymore. Some of its functions are being taken over by the cabinet secretary, the presidential chief of staff and state secretary," Andi said, stopping short of explaining which function was handed over to which institution.

"This job is really interesting and has many great challenges. As the president's helper, I will do my best," Luhut said after being sworn in.

He added that there would be no overlap between the tasks of the presidential chief of staff, the cabinet secretary and the state secretary, the role of which is currently held by Pratikno. "I think the division of work is clear," Luhut said.

The president on Wednesday also appointed a new chief of staff for the Navy.

Adm. Ade Supandi, a former chief of general staff at the Indonesian Military (TNI), replaces Adm. Marsetio, who is retiring this month.

"The new Navy chief of staff must continue the [Navy's] effort to become a world-class defense force, which is what Marsetio had been trying to achieve," military observer Susaningtyas Handayani Kertopati said on Wednesday.

The inauguration ceremony at the State Palace was attended by ministers; the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Hamdan Zoelva; two deputy speakers of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), Hidayat Nur Wahid and Oesman Sapta Odang; a deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, Agus Hermanto; and the chief of the National Police, Gen. Sutarman.

The appointment of Luhut is seen by some observers as another one of Joko's attempts to balance the political power play being waged within his government.

Joko, a junior member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is seen by many as struggling under the thumb of elite politicians who have closed ranks around him — mainly PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri, National Democrat Party (NasDem) chairman and media mogul Surya Paloh, and Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

However, recent actions suggest the president is gradually trying to break free from these Old Guard influences.

Hamdi Muluk, a professor in political psychology at the University of Indonesia, sees the presidential chief of staff as a very strategic position that would grant Luhut significant power in the government.

"[Luhuk's appointment] may be one of Jokowi's tactics to balance the power play around him," Hamdi said, referring to Joko by his nickname.

"And I think it will surely work. Luhut is quite a powerful [politician], and Jokowi himself said he had known Luhut, had been friends with him for quite some time. They can trust each other, they can work well together."

Hamdi pointed out that Luhut was not only a veteran politician, but he also had strong military links, particularly within the Army.

Luhut served as a commander in the Army's Special Forces, or Kopassus, and a commander of its infantry division.

He was appointed as the Indonesian ambassador to Singapore by former president B.J. Habibie in 1999, and named industry and trade minister during the late Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid's presidency from 2000 to 2001.

Luhut was a senior adviser with the Golkar Party until earlier this year, when he strayed from the party by voicing his support for Joko's presidential bid ahead of the July 9 presidential election. Golkar, meanwhile, sided with the Red-White Coalition to support the presidential bid of former Army general Prabowo Subianto — also a former Kopassus commander.

Luhut has long defended Joko from accusations that labeled the former Jakarta governor as nothing more than a political puppet to Megawati. The 67-year-old said he had known the president since long before they began collaborating in a furniture business together, and before Joko was elected mayor of Solo, Central Java.

"When people say Jokowi is a puppet; it's not true," Luhut insisted, adding that only those who did not know the president would make such allegations.

Arbi Sanit, a political expert at the University of Indonesia, sees Joko's appointment of Luhut as the president's attempt to strengthen his military backing.

Two other retired military generals are part of Joko's inner circle, namely Ryamizard Ryacudu, the defense minister, and A.M. Hendropriyono, one of the president's senior advisers.

Arbi pointed out that Joko would need all of them to strengthen his military links, for two reasons: To support his "weak" presidency — given his status as a newcomer on Indonesia's political stage — and to support the government's flagship programs that require military backing.

"Jokowi is popular among the common people. But at the elite level, he has no one. His leadership is weak, so he needs the military as an anchor," Arbi said, adding that the president also needed to fortify his control over the Indonesian Military, citing its reluctance to support his administration's flagship policies, such as the sinking of foreign-flagged vessels poaching in Indonesian waters.

"The maritime minister has complained about the Navy's slow response to her request to sink [illegal] vessels," Arbi said. "Joko needs more control over the military — enough to make them respond immediately to his orders."

Arbi added that Joko had so far been seen as relying heavily on his closest aides, such as Cabinet Secretary Andi and State Secretary Pratikno, to run his administration. Luhut's addition to the power circle — with his vast experience in the military, political and business sectors — is expected to reinforce the government.

Further Coverage