National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian has shown that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to name him head of the police corps in July 2016 was the right move. Tito succeeded in neutralizing political upheavals and anti-government rallies, mostly through silent operations.
The 53-year-old police chief is now the President’s most effective aide not only on security but also economic and political matters. He may have replaced Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Gen. (ret) Luhut Pandjaitan as the President’s security czar and therefore has a great opportunity to go far beyond his current post.
Many probably do not realize that Tito has practically become the country’s second-most powerful man after Jokowi, and firebrand Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab deserves the biggest credit for Tito’s political fortune.
Don’t laugh. One day, just before the presidential election in 2019, Tito will be seen visiting Rizieq at the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) headquarters in Petamburan, Central Jakarta, or somewhere else. Tito will hug FPI leader Rizieq and even kiss his cheek, because if not for Rizieq, President Jokowi would not have picked Tito as his running mate in the presidential race. And of course Tito will ask for the cleric’s blessing.
Such a scenario of course is based on current political development, which has witnessed Tito emerge as the President’s right hand man who managed to tame opposition and anti-government groups with minimum political risk.
“Habib, thank you for all street demonstrations that you led, your [hate] speeches and anti- everything acts. Now I stand a big chance of winning the vice presidential post precisely because of your tireless efforts to destabilize the government and frighten minorities,” Tito, who will be 55 at that time, tells the FPI leader.
Born in the South Sumatra capital of Palembang on Oct. 26, 1964, Tito graduated from the Police Academy in 1987. He holds Master degrees from the United Kingdom and New Zealand and a PhD from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. He specializes in counterterrorism.
But how crucial is Rizieq’s role for Tito’s political future?
Rizieq attracted international media attention and received applause from millions of Indonesian Muslims for leading two large rallies against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama last year.
Many of the protesters were angry with the sharp tongue of Ahok, who is now a defendant in a blasphemy case at the North Jakarta District Court. They demanded the heaviest punishment for the Christian governor of Chinese descent for allegedly insulting Islam.
In the Nov. 4 demonstration, the government clearly failed to anticipate the impacts of Rizieq’s “people’s power” plan. Many were disappointed with Tito then because he seemed to accommodate the FPI’s demands. The President was clearly clueless about what would really happen that day, because his intelligence aides miscalculated the number of protesters.
The rally helped Rizieq transform his image as an intolerant Muslim leader to a national figure, whose influence and power might rival that of leaders of the country’s two largest moderate Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.
In the following anti-Ahok rally on Dec. 2, however, the government gained the upperhand against Rizieq. The President attended the Friday prayers organized by the FPI at the National Monument (Monas) Square to steal the show from Rizieq. Earlier that morning, the police arrested 11 antigovernment activists, including Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, the sister and nemesis of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri.
The 212 rally seemed to be a turning point for Rizieq’s downfall and Tito’s prominence on the other hand. Instead of seizing the moment to morph himself into a widely recognized national leader, he continued his anti-government movements and tried to find all possible ways to discredit the government, including his demand for the withdrawal of the newly issued rupiah banknotes, which he accused of bearing an image that resembled the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) hammer-and-sickle logo.
But Rizieq’s biggest blunder is his overconfidence in fighting Jakarta and West Java Police chiefs, who are Tito’s confidantes. The cleric is now facing a string of criminal charges and has been named a suspect for insulting the Pancasila.
The police have now linked Rizieq with sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations allegedly between himself and Firza Husein, a treason suspect. Tito clearly is reaping the benefits from Rizieq’s concerted but careless anti-government acts.
The President now has Tito at his side and has let him become powerful under his full control. Trust me, Jokowi has started thinking about the possibility of picking Tito as his running mate for when he seeks reelection in 2019.
At the same time, the President will consider his men for strategic posts such as the director general of taxation and head of the Financial Reports and Analysis Centre. The two will form a powerful team to fight tax fraud and corruption while ensuring higher state revenues and most importantly to silence Jokowi’s detractors.
For Tito, Rizieq will be inseparable from his rise.