By John McBeth

A test of Jokowi's independence

The knives are out for Mr Luhut Panjaitan, with both Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla strongly opposed to President Joko Widodo choosing the former special forces general as a powerful new presidential chief of staff.

Already denied the job of coordinating minister for political and security affairs in Mr Joko's Cabinet, Mr Panjaitan, 67, is also thought to be in competition with one-time PDI-P secretary-general Pramono Anung to head the Office of the President.

Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the former head of the presidential monitoring unit, says it is important Mr Joko has strong personal staff, separate from the State Secretariat, who can provide clear direction to a Cabinet made up of untested newcomers.

The secretariat is normally dominant, but the presence of mild-mannered new State Secretary Pratikno, 52, the former rector of Yogyakarta's Gadja Mada University and close personal friend of Mr Joko, suggests its influence may be limited.

Mr Joko needs a tough figure like Mr Panjaitan, his friend and business partner, to guard his back. But he also needs someone who can deal with Parliament where the opposition coalition presents a major legislative obstacle in these early months.

Either way, the decision is a serious test of the President's independence. So far, to the disappointment of many around him, he has been reluctant to be drawn into a test of wills with Ms Megawati, preferring to go along with most of her wishes. Relenting on Cabinet choices is one thing, but the Office of President will comprise people whom Mr Joko must rely on for their loyalty and to implement his policies. His preferences should be non-negotiable.

Friends say Mr Panjaitan's strong personality and often overly assertive style do not go down well with Mr Kalla and Ms Megawati, who worry he will become too much of an influence on the President. Mr Kalla may well feel he will lose his relevance with Mr Panjaitan in the palace. Ms Megawati, for her part, still resents the fact that the then trade minister refused her request to resign from Mr Abdurrahman Wahid's Cabinet 15 years ago.

Retired generals in her inner circle, including defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, former intelligence chief A.M. Hendropriyono, and former Jakarta governor Sutiyoso, also oppose his appointment, perhaps more out of old-fashioned envy than anything else. None lifted a finger to help in the presidential campaign, while Mr Panjaitan, a former ambassador to Singapore, spent US$1 million (S$1.3 million) of his own money pulling together volunteers to make up for the virtual absence of PDI-P and its listless leadership.

Interestingly, even losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a bitter foe of Mr Panjaitan in the military and out of it, recently invited him to a private lunch at a downtown hotel to reassure him he has no dog in this particular fight. Mr Panjaitan had been widely tipped for political coordinating minister, but initially lost out to People's Conscious Party leader and former military chief Wiranto, even though Mr Wiranto is under United Nations indictment for human rights crimes.

Only 24 hours before the Cabinet announcement, Mr Joko had a wise change of mind, replacing Mr Wiranto with former navy chief of staff Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, 62, a member of Mr Surya Paloh's National Democrat Party.

The Office of the President was never going to be one of Mr Joko's priorities, mostly because its structure still has to be finalised, with the presidential decrees required for staffing and budgets.

But in a country where access is often determined by personal ties and not through institutional channels, it is a significant issue for a president with few political friends looking for a right-hand man he can trust implicitly.

That role is now being filled by Cabinet Secretary Andi Widjajanto, 43, a Western-educated academic whose father, the late General Theo Syafi'e, was a Megawati loyalist during her confrontation with Mr Suharto in the 1990s - and a friend of Mr Panjaitan as well.

A paratrooper in the 1975 Timor Leste invasion and once commander of the elite Detachment 81 counter-terrorist unit, Mr Panjaitan is a Christian and, if he gets the job, would be the only Batak of ministerial rank in the new administration.

Batak is the collective term for the voluble ethnic groups of North Sumatra, who overwhelmingly voted for Mr Joko in July. Perhaps for that reason, it was the first region the new President visited after his Oct 20 inauguration.

The Office of the President is expected to be arranged along the lines suggested by former British prime minister Tony Blair when he met Mr Joko in September. Roughly divided into budget, planning, supervision, delivery and intelligence, one of its main tasks will be to get stalled projects moving again. The 50-strong presidential monitoring unit, known as UPK4, is expected to be folded into the office, but there are concerns it will not retain its current responsibility for both supervision and delivery.

"It doesn't make sense to divide it like that," says Mr Mangkusubroto, who won global acclaim for his handling of the US$7 billion Aceh reconstruction effort. "You will kill it if you do that. It will collapse from week one."

The next three or four months will be hard as Mr Joko's coalition seeks to make headway against a parliamentary opposition led by Golkar and Mr Prabowo's Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the second- and third-biggest parties. But if, as expected, People's Consultative Assembly speaker Zulkifli Hasan takes over from Mr Hatta Rajasa as National Mandate Party (PAN) leader in either January or February, all that could change overnight.

Mr Hasan, 52, has told party members he wants to cross the floor. In doing so, he would give Mr Joko a 15-seat edge that will make governing easier. It's a done deal," says one senior PAN politician. "We don't see any future staying here."

It would have already happened if Mr Rajasa had not been Mr Prabowo's running mate, and his daughter had not been married to the son of Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose bitter relationship with Ms Megawati has left the Democrat Party sitting uncomfortably on the fence.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com