Indonesian soldiers should have the right to vote

Indonesian soldiers should have the right to vote
A Balinese supporter holds a poster of Indonesia presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto during their campaign in Denpasar on Bali island on June 6, 2014.

Recent reports that an Indonesian army officer allegedly attempted to persuade civilians in Central Jakarta to vote for former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto in the July 9 presidential election has highlighted some unfinished business in Indonesia's reform process.

By law, the Indonesian Armed Forces cannot be involved in politics. Soldiers are also barred from voting. But if anyone deserves to vote in an election, it is the soldiers who put their lives on the line to preserve national security and to secure the basic freedoms that are supposed to go with a democratic system. They have more right than anyone else.

Don't tell that to Indonesia, though. Indonesian service members were looking forward to taking advantage of a small chink in the door that would have allowed them to vote in the presidential election.

But even that has been denied them, with the Constitutional Court recently ruling in a judicial review that an article in the 2008 Presidential Election Law, only preventing them from voting in the 2009 presidential election, should not be allowed to stand.

Brought by former National Commission on Human Rights chairman Ifdhal Kasim and Institute for Constitutional Democracy lawyer Supriyadi Eddyono, the request for a review fell back on old arguments and ignored how much Indonesia has changed.

The plaintiffs asserted that the 2008 legislation failed to provide legal certainty on the issue, unlike the 2012 Legislative Election Law, which specifically bans men and women in uniform from voting - a practice dating back to a more turbulent period in the 1950s.

The court ruled that there should be no exceptions to the rule when the two national institutions had such important strategic roles to play. That meant their neutrality in politics must be guaranteed. It also supported the Justice Ministry's contention that the prohibition was all the more crucial given the fact that a growing number of retired generals, including presidential contender Prabowo Subianto, were now involved in politics.

Inherent in that is the argument that with more presidential candidates and political party leaders coming from the ranks of military and police retirees, it could lead to internal conflicts within the armed forces.

I don't buy it. The only obvious internal conflicts are between retired generals, such as Mr Prabowo and many of his superior officers from the days when he was Suharto's son-in-law and an ambitious rising star who rode roughshod over authority.

Serving officers may show deference to their so-called "seniors", but that doesn't go as far as slavishly doing their bidding. Once out of the chain of command, a general's power dissipates rapidly.

The incident in Central Jakarta involving an infantry captain canvassing for Mr Prabowo has all the hallmarks of an isolated incident.

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