Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Kings or kingmakers


In 1451 Mehmet II replaced his father, Murad II, as Sultan of the Ottoman Turks. He was the third son, by a slave girl, from the Sultan's harem. Murad's first two sons, by high born wives, were expected to be his successors but the eldest died of natural causes and the second was murdered in suspicious circumstances.

Among his first acts on assuming power, Mehmet II had his infant half brother drowned in his bath. Fratricide was common place following dynastic successions and was designed to reduce the field of possible usurpers and deny disgruntled citizens a symbol of opposition.

Mehmet II delivered the coup de grace to the last significant remnant of the Roman Empire and bastion of the Eastern Orthodox Church by capturing Constantinople in 1453. The empire was no more but the Orthodox Church survives in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Interestingly, in the six years before his death, Sultan Murad attempted to retire, handing power to Mehmet II. But he was eventually called back because of Mehmet's youth, and dissension among his advisers. Nevertheless, Mehmet became one of the greatest leaders of the Ottoman Empire.

This historical cameo reminds us of the inherent difficulties authoritarian regimes experience replacing leaders and establishing and maintaining their legitimacy. Although fratricide is now unfashionable and much has changed since the days of Mehmet II, the nature of the human animal remains constant.


Whoever replaces Suharto will need the backing of influential sections of the elite, especially those in the armed forces. It might seem that Suharto has promoted a tame bunch of professional lackeys to the senior leadership of Abri. But to expect all of them to remain docile when the redistribution of power and privilege is on offer is to ignore history and deny human nature.

Suharto's actions in relation to Abri show that he is acutely aware of this problem. From the beginning of his reign he has been a master of divide and rule tactics and the use of political eunuchs. He successfully isolated and sidelined potential challengers like Generals Nasution, Sumitro, Murtopo, and Jusuf among others.

Abri command arrangements also make it difficult for any commander to act in isolation or in concert with fellow malcontents. The intelligence system is pervasive and comprises several independent parts. And the capital Jakarta is secured by units from several different commands, reducing the risk of Praetorian arrogance.

Overlaying the structure of power are personnel arrangements designed to minimise the opportunity for officers to betray their political masters. Many of the senior commanders are personally known to the president, having been personal aides, presidential security officers, or local commanders. Most are also tied to the president by patronage, either directly or indirectly.

Finally, most senior military appointments are regularly rotated. This has the effect of denying officers the opportunity to develop independent power bases and alliances. With a retirement age of 55 and a top heavy structure it also ensures rapid promotion for favoured officers, flattering their egos and creating a sense of obligation to their patrons.

Save the state

If Abri has been so effectively bent to the president's will can it play any significant role in the presidential succession? The answer is that it will depend on the circumstances at the time. Abri officers might act to save the state as defined by doctrine, from self-interest, or from a combination of both.

Abri has contingency plans to cover possibilities like the death of the incumbent president and the forthcoming special session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). These plans only cover security matters, they cannot address the political consequences except in a procedural manner. Nevertheless, they will put some senior commanders in potentially advantageous positions when implemented.

Ironically, the regime's own indoctrination is a double edged sword. Doctrine states that Abri is above politics, that it is the guardian of the nation and the protector of the people from false prophets. Were the succession to give rise to unrest, for whatever reason, some officers might feel duty bound to save the state from those who would destroy the regime.

Likewise with President Suharto's policy of maintaining dynamic tension and competition among senior officers. Although this assists in maintaining his own position it could lead to factionalisation during a succession.


The Suharto succession will occur as a consequence of the president's death or infirmity, or a decision to step down either at a regular MPR session or mid-term. Death or infirmity or retirement mid-term would be the easiest solution if the incumbent vice president was generally acceptable and competent and the process was not drawn out.

A prolonged succession, as a result of creeping senility or of a decision to step down at a regular MPR session, poses the greatest challenge. It would dissolve patronage obligations and create an opportunity for a number of challengers to emerge. In the absence of strong political institutions it is possible that challengers could seek endorsement directly from the populace, through social and religious organisations, or from the military.

Such endeavours could divide the loyalty of Abri commanders and staff, forcing officers to declare their position. When personal ambition and other motives such as envy, revenge and frustration are added, the potential for splits within Abri increases. Should civil unrest arise it will inevitably put more power into the hands of the troops deployed to restore order.

Likewise with the option of semi-retirement, the so-called Lee Kuan Yew option. Indonesia lacks the political infrastructure provided by Singapore's People's Action Party. After more than 30 years of the New Order, Abri remains the repository of Suharto's power. And, as Sultan Murad found, any attempt to divide power at the peak allows scope for divisive politics from below.


Any attempt to explore the lines of cleavage in Abri is confounded by the nature of the regime and restrictions on research. The Indonesian officer corps is sometimes defined according to patronage links, divisional allegiances, military classes, professional orientation, religious affiliations, and ethnicity. None of these, in themselves, are of much utility because interests and loyalties change with time and circumstance.

Rather than explore these imponderables, differences of interest can be explored in relation to concrete issues like the succession and political transition. The officer corps both active and retired is split on the succession issue. Many believe that it is long past time that Suharto retired but few are prepared to say so directly or openly.

There are many reasons for their reticence. Suharto can still severely penalise critics directly or indirectly, for example by denying passports, business or educational opportunities to the individual or his family. They are also reluctant to publicly acknowledge divisions within the Abri family for fear of stimulating cleavages which might be exploited by other opponents of the regime. The regime also fosters subservience to authority and deference to age.

The motives for opposing Suharto's continued rule also vary. Some resent being left out of power and patronage, others resent the privileges given to family and friends of the president. Some resent Suharto's usurpation of the New Order, some believe that he has done a good job but that his time has passed. Others are critical of the means he has used to retain power.

Suharto's unseating of Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party, and the party's virtual destruction in the lead-up to the May 1997 parliamentary elections, crippled an avenue of opposition to Suharto's reelection in March 1998 and stripped away the veneer of democracy Pancasila doctrine espouses. Suharto's manipulation of Islam for political ends also causes anxiety among some members of the officer corps.

Suharto's new-found devotion to Islam has been useful in coopting Islam and for providing a counter-foil to Abri, much as the PKI did for Sukarno. But many officers, including the current minister for defence and security, fear that the political mobilisation of Islam could rebound on the regime. They fear the emotive mobilising power of Islam in the wrong hands.


Political transition is the other issue on which divisions within Abri are apparent. For some, political transition means retention of the current regime. For others it includes liberalisation of the current regime. For a minority, mainly of the younger generation, it includes eventual transition to liberal democracy. In the cut an thrust of politics the two issues sometimes become entwined.

Opposition to Suharto is mainly expressed by retired officers or the occasional maverick in Abri's parliamentary faction. Nevertheless, they reflect the views of many serving officers who do not have the latitude to express their views. A serving officer risks his career prospects and consideration for sinecures on retirement by openly opposing Suharto's continued rule.

Suharto's recent authorisation of government regulations providing for five star generals within Abri and his own promotion to five star general, along with the late Sudirman and Nasution, can be seen as a move to remind Abri officers, in the lead-up to the March 1998 elections, that he is supreme commander of Abri. That Suharto needs these symbols of power shows that he recognises that he is losing power as age catches up with him and discussion of succession mounts.

The discussion thus far is centred on elite politics, but a revolt by more junior officers inspired by ideological zeal or religious zealotry cannot be ignored. For example, the currency crisis related to the floating of the rupiah, the devastating fires that swept Indonesia recently and increasing concerns about corruption and the abuse of power could motivate such action. Even if unsuccessful, the attempt could trigger deep divisions within the elite, including the officer corps.

In summary, there is little to be gained from looking for individual military officers or fixed constellations of officers who would be king or kingmakers. The commanders in place when Suharto decides to retire or is no more will only show their true colours when the time comes. What colours they fly will depend on their latitude for action and the character of the individuals concerned. Those who would delete Abri from the analysis of presidential succession would do well to reflect on the nature of the human animal.

Bob Lowry is author of T'he Indonesian Armed Forces', Allen & Unwin, 1996.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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