It is not an exaggeration that behind everything in Indonesia there is Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan. While it’s not always clear what he has been doing or if he’s been successful in doing those things, he seems to be portrayed by his loyalists as the only one in this whole archipelago that can make sure the job is done.
Call him what you like but he is the reason why President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo could rise to power in the first place and survived this long, allowing the small-time furniture trader to claim presidency since 2014, then forming a coalition of political parties – by using sticks for those resisting and offering carrots for those joining – so dominant it has not been seen in Indonesia since the era of Soeharto’s New Order Era.
After engineering a portrayal that could convinced local and international civil society groups and media into believing that Jokowi was the one to lead Indonesia because he was not part of the country’s past corrupt regime and thus could enhance democracy and offer protection of human rights for people in general in opposite to Prabowo Subianto, who has been pictured as representing everything that is wrong with the nation, Luhut – and to some extent with the help of University of Indonesia’s strategist recently cum the National Defense Institute (Lemhannas) chief Andi Widjajanto – managed in 2014 to carry Jokowi to power even when the majority of the country’s Muslims voted against him.
In 2019, Luhut again helped Jokowi defeat Prabowo to extend his term this time by dividing the Muslim voters by taking Ma’ruf Amin, a Nahdlatul Ulama’s cleric, as his running mate, despite less than convincing achievement in his first five years as a president.
Jokowi has been able to also survive various assaults from his own party and the country’s biggest, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and its chairwoman Megawti Soekarnoputri by combination of isolation and appeasement. Megawati and PDI-P have been wanting to put Jokowi under their control, believing that it was them who put him on the country’s top job. Luhut, who has a strained relationship with Megawati after the former refused to quit president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid’s cabinet in 2004 has been well aware from the very beginning that the biggest challenge of controlling Indonesia would not have been Muslims or a few Muslim hardliners but Jokowi’s dependent and fear of PDI-P and Megawati.
While he must stay obedient and accepted even when Megawati called him a mere party’s official who was assigned by the party to become a president, Jokowi with the help of Luhut – and again with an assist from Andi – can gradually hold its own ground vis a vis Megawati and the PDI-P, and cleverly isolate them from decision making process on many key national issues by among others awarding the party’s politicians with various projects across Indonesia.
Looking at his background and experience it would be almost impossible for Jokowi to have any guts to challenge Megawati and PDI-P, or let alone coming up with such a grand strategy to dominate Indonesian politics, and manipulate Indonesia’s biggest political party without having a real brain with experiences whispering to his ear every time.
But there must always be an axiom of “quid pro quo”. Luhut must be rewarded – or to be more accurate he must reward himself – for his services to the president. And look, how handsomely he has been rewarded, with the president throwing him any imaginable position to him. As all positions can’t come without power and authorities, practically Luhut is more powerful than the president himself.
Beside already holding sweeping portfolios of the nation’s investment and anything related to the country’s massive sea resources. Luhut has been holding 10 different strategic public jobs from heading a Covid and pandemic task force to transportation, defense, to Papua’s problems to foreign diplomacy. There is no bigger reward than blessing him with all power and authorities as with these capacities he can control access the nation’s resources. When Jokowi picked Bambang Susantono as the chief of Indonesia’s new capital, he needed to tell Bambang to coordinate with Luhut, not with East Kalimantan governor, home minister or the public works minister, in handling his job.
As Luhut’s power grows, so is his wealth, with Finance Minister Sri Mulyani stating recently that Luhut is the richest minister in Jokowi’s cabinet which has billionaires like Sandiaga Uno and Prabowo Subianto, each with personal wealth of Rp 5 trillion and 1.5 trillion respectively. If Luhut is richer than Sandiaga, then we can’t even imagine how rich he has been after all these years of controlling Indonesia.
It’s not for nothing that Lord Acton’s dictum ”power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely” can stand the test of time as one of the most important quotes in history.
It is natural then that reports and accusation that he has abused his power to enrich himself have been emerging from time to time. He, for instance, has been accused of being involved in a US$15 billion gold mining project scandal in area known as Wabu Block, a mountain in Intan Jaya in Papua, a site also called “Mountain of Gold”. His companies have also been accused of easily getting trillions of loans from state-owned banks, and various other accusations.
But the destructive aspect of abuse of power is just one part of the story of putting various responsibilities, power and authorities in one hand. It, for instance, closes opportunity for other people with better ideas and capacities to solve the nation’s problems. Luhut’s interests and business vision could also steer the nation to the wrong turns, with the Omnibus Law appeasing big businesses and KPK Law weakening of corruption eradication appeasing corrupt elites as two examples highlighting such wrong turns.
His reported involvement in foreign policy making, for instance, in Indonesia’s confusing statement on Russia’s invasion into Ukraine also highlights error made by people who don’t understand that diplomacy goes beyond merely getting financial gains.
Eight years under Jokowi and Luhut, Indonesia is not getting any better. The income gap between the rich and the poor remains high. While the poverty rate is increasing with the number of poor people nearly reach 30 million, the rich Indonesia is getting richer. Meanwhile Indonesia’s foreign loans keep increasing, posing a heavy burden on the budget in years to come and future generation.
Jokowi’s infrastructure projects are also full of scandals, with Bandung-Jakarta speed train project and some toll road projects being tainted by briberies resulting in higher costs than previously anticipated, forcing the government to bail them out with tax payer money to prevent them from collapsing. All of these scandals have been worsened by inhumane treats against people living in areas of the projects. Police’s invasion into Wadas, for instance, highlights state’s inhumane treatment against people. Meanwhile, the so-called development projects in Kalimantan and Papua have massively destroyed the environment and traditional life the local people.
While it is difficult to assess the handling of covid and the pandemic, the early denial of covid has worsened Indonesia’s condition. Would other Indonesia’s leaders, such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, have handled the pandemic better? As a leader with global awareness, Yudhoyono could have been better. Anyway, Indonesia can’t claim to be uniquely successful in handling the pandemic as the world in general now seems able to cope with it.
While the economy is not getting better in the last eight years, Indonesia’s democracy is getting worse by any standards under Jokowi’s watch, with arrests against people expressing their ideas increasing recently.
So, what actually has been done by Luhut or Jokowi if the nation is not getting better and most of the key problems remain unsolved?
Luhut’s greatest interest is actually not overcoming the nation’s problems, it is keeping Jokowi in power regardless the facts that they have not achieved anything meaningful for the nation. By keeping Jokowi in power, he will stay in power also.
That’s why it’s not surprising that he champions the push for the extension of Jokowi’s presidency by delaying the 2024 elections to give time for amendment of the constitution to allow Jokowi to run for the third time. To justify his agenda, he claims that Indonesia is better off if Jokowi stays as president, and that he has proofs from his ”big data” that Indonesian people want him to stay in power despite series of surveys have found that people don’t want Jokowi to amend the constitution to stay in power.
Beside, what big data? This seems like a desperate effort to stay in power.
Jokowi and Luhut are already very fortunate enough to rule over Indonesia for one term. Two terms are already beyond imagination. But forcing it for three terms will be a huge disaster for them and for Indonesia.