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Which version of an ex-general did Indonesia just vote for?

Prabowo Subianto, left, and his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, center, the son of the current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, during a meeting with Sultan of Yogyakarta Hamengkubuwono X, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on Jan. 22, 2024. (Ulet Ifansasti/The New York Times)

By Sui-Lee Wee

Indonesia’s defense minister, a feared former A strongman apparatchik accused of multiple human rights abuses. A violent nationalist. A pious defender of Muslims. A loyal acolyte of a popular president with few achievements of his own.

Prabowo Subianto has been called all of these over the years he has sought power in Indonesia. Now he is projected to be the country’s next president. Unofficial tallies from Wednesday’s election show him winning a decisive victory, with nearly 60% of the vote.

During the campaign, Prabowo repeatedly promised that he would continue on the path and policies charted by Joko Widodo, the popular departing president. That would mean doling out billions of dollars on welfare programs such as school lunches, health care and housing. Joko, who had beaten Probowo in previous elections and is scheduled to step down in October, seemed to offer support to his former rival as well, through his 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who will be Prabowo’s vice president.

But it remains unclear what kind of leader Prabowo, 72, will be. In the past he has questioned the need for democracy, and he is known for his volatile temper and erratic behavior. During this campaign, he insisted that he was committed to democracy.

“With Prabowo, we don’t trust him, so he will be given much less room to maneuver” by the public, said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who was a senior adviser to the Indonesian vice president in the 2000s. “He will probably be eager to show his democratic credentials.”

Indonesia’s future is pivotal for the world. With a population of roughly 270 million, it is the world’s fourth-most populous country and has a big role to play in both geopolitics and climate change. It is the biggest exporter of coal and has large deposits of nickel, a key component of electric car batteries. Officials in the United States regard it as one of the world’s most important “swing states” in the contest for influence with China.

At the turn of the century, Indonesia was in turmoil. Soldiers shot student activists in the streets, the country’s ethnic Chinese minority were the targets of communal violence, and terrorist attacks became more frequent.

Pro-democracy protests led to the fall of Suharto, the dictator who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades and was once Prabowo’s father-in-law. The military was mostly sidelined from politics, and elections took on vital importance. When Joko won the presidency, in 2014, he was an important first: a leader who did not come from the political or military elite, and who had campaigned as a down-to-earth reformer.

Joko embarked on ambitious infrastructure and welfare programs, like building thousands of miles of roads and enacting universal health care. He won a second term and beat the same opponent he had the first time: Prabowo. Then he named Prabowo his defense minister, effectively co-opting his main rival.

About a year ago, Joko attempted to put Prabowo and Ganjar Pranowo, the heir-apparent from Joko’s party, on the same ticket, according to Ganjar. Prabowo’s pitch was that he was seeking the presidency for only one term, Ganjar said, adding: “I didn’t want to. So, there was no deal.”

In October, Joko’s brother-in-law cast the deciding vote in the Constitutional Court to broaden the eligibility for vice-presidential candidates, allowing Joko’s son Gibran to run on Prabowo’s ticket. That, critics say, publicly tied Prabowo’s candidacy to dynastic aspirations, and continued influence, by Joko.

“Jokowi clearly dreams that Prabowo will allow him to be a back-seat driver, which I don’t believe will be the case,” Dewi said, using the president’s nickname. “Maybe Prabowo will defer to Jokowi in the early days or weeks, but I don’t think any self-respecting president will allow a former president to give him too much advice.”

Prabowo’s supporters say he has learned from Joko how to appeal to the public. During this election campaign, Prabowo has dropped his doggedly nationalist and Islamist-ally personas.

Instead, he tried to cultivate a folksy, grandfather image with awkward dances at rallies and video clips on social media. Many young people — the biggest voting bloc in Indonesia — care little about his past.

For some Indonesians, many of whom pinned their hopes on Joko, Prabowo’s rise with the departing president’s support seems a setback for the country’s hard-won democracy.

“The 2024 election is a red mark that will be remembered by the public,” said Media Wahyudi Askar, director of public policy at the Center of Economics and Law Studies. “Although in the end both Prabowo and Jokowi emerged as winners, there is a significant segment of society that is dissatisfied.”

Official election results will not be released for another month, and Prabowo’s opponents have said that it is too early to declare a winner. But on Wednesday, when it was clear that Prabowo had a commanding lead, some expressed worry about their futures.

“Many people are scared,” said Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a researcher from the National Agency for Research and Innovation. “I think it’s because we are haunted by the phobia of the New Order era,” he said, referring to the reign of Suharto, Prabowo’s former father-in-law.

During that time, Prabowo was the commander of the feared special forces. He was found to have ordered in 1998 the kidnapping of political dissidents, for which he was later dismissed by the army. More than a dozen people remain missing and are feared dead. That record led to him being banned from entering the United States for nearly two decades.

On Wednesday night, Prabowo sought to portray himself as a unifying figure.

“Now the campaign is over, we are reunited, brothers and sisters,” he told supporters. “Let’s forget harsh words. Between siblings, fighting is normal. But quarrels should not become long-lasting divisions.”

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