‘Continuity’ Prabowo means change for Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto used the endorsement of the popular outgoing president to win power - but is unlikely to govern as Jokowi’s ‘proxy’.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

When I had lunch with Prabowo Subianto in 2013, a year before his first, failed attempt to be elected president of Indonesia, he was still honing his fiery nationalist pitch, promising to shake up the country and prevent it becoming a failed state. 

Eleven years later, the 72-year-old former general finally seems to have secured the presidency by reinventing himself as a continuity candidate, forming an unlikely alliance with the incredibly popular outgoing President Joko Widodo.

Unofficial ‘quick counts’ by respected pollsters, which are typically accurate, indicate that Prabowo won nearly 60 per cent of the vote in Indonesia’s presidential election on February 14. That would be a landslide victory over his rivals, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo. 

With more than 200 million voters and 800,000 polling stations spread over thousands of islands in the world’s third most populous democracy, the official results will take one month to collate.

Election data suggest that Prabowo’s victory is thanks in large part to the unofficial backing of Jokowi, as the current president is known.

Indonesia’s choice of leader matters far beyond its archipelagic shores, given its prominent role within Southeast Asia, its position on the forefront of US–China rivalry, the scale and rapid growth of its G20 economy, and its status as the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

The initial election data suggest that Prabowo’s victory is thanks in large part to the unofficial backing of Jokowi, as the current president is known. After Jokowi defeated Prabowo in two bitterly fought elections in 2014 and 2019, Jokowi made Prabowo his defence minister, neutralizing a powerful opponent. 

Jokowi did not formally endorse Prabowo in this election. But Prabowo appointed Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice-presidential running mate, and vowed to build on Jokowi’s robust economic record. 

Not a Jokowi proxy

If Prabowo takes office in October, he is likely to govern as his own man rather than a proxy for Jokowi. 

That is partly because of his personality. Prabowo is driven by a strong sense of destiny, telling me in 2013 that he was ‘not born to rule but born to serve’. As a high-flying officer in Suharto’s military, he inspired loyalty from his men and fear from his enemies. 

He also faced credible accusations of human rights abuses before and during the fall of Suharto’s regime in 1998. He toned down his rabble-rousing rhetoric in this election campaign, but his strongman image remains a key element of his appeal to his base. 

Political realities will also limit Jokowi’s influence. The vice-presidential office in Indonesia is as weak as it is in the US, so it will be difficult for Gibran, an inexperienced city mayor who seemed reluctant to speak at Prabowo’s victory rally, to use that position to exert influence. 

Jokowi may retain his high public support once he leaves office (with an approval rating of 80 per cent), but that will not naturally translate into political influence.

In fact, once Prabowo controls the significant powers and patronage of the presidency, the politically promiscuous party leaders and tycoons who have supported Jokowi are likely to gravitate toward Prabowo. 

How Prabowo and Jokowi manage their long and complex relationship…will define the shape of Prabowo’s presidency.

With the legislative election results not confirmed yet, it is too soon to know what kind of parliamentary coalition Prabowo might build, and what that means for his ties with Jokowi.

Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, saw his influence ebb away rapidly once he stepped down. Jokowi, a more canny operator, is keen to avoid his predecessor’s fate, hence the advancement of his son as Prabowo’s number two.

How Prabowo and Jokowi manage their long and complex relationship, having gone from coalition partners to rivals to partners again, will define the shape of Prabowo’s presidency.

Prabowo will have his own instincts when it comes to governing, although there was little detailed discussion of policy in the campaign. On the economic front, Prabowo is likely to continue with Jokowi’s controversial push to build a $33 billion new capital city in the jungles of Kalimantan. 

In addition, he shares Jokowi’s desire to turn Indonesia into a modern industrial powerhouse rather than a mere exporter of raw commodities such as nickel, bauxite and palm oil. However, Prabowo is unlikely to be as focused as Jokowi on attracting investment and developing infrastructure. 

And it is unclear how Prabowo will balance his potentially costly plans to make Indonesia self-reliant in terms of food against the country’s constrained fiscal and monetary positions.

Democracy and the international stage

There are also big questions over Prabowo’s approach to democracy, although he pledged in his victory speech to govern for all Indonesians. 

Prabowo has previously railed against the unnecessary expense and complexity of Indonesian democracy.

Democratic checks-and-balances were eroded under Jokowi’s watch. The powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission were diminished and the 40-year minimum age limit for presidential and vice-presidential candidates was overturned, allowing Gibran to run for vice-president. 

Prabowo has previously railed against the unnecessary expense and complexity of Indonesian democracy, and many rights activists worry about what he might do when he inherits the system. 

Article 2nd half

Having grown up in London, Zurich and Kuala Lumpur, the former general is also likely to be a very different president on the international stage. 

Jokowi disliked the formality of diplomatic summits, never attending a UN General Assembly in person, and argued that foreign policy should be centred on promoting trade and investment. 

Prabowo will bring his own enthusiastic but unpredictable style, as evidenced by the hastily conjured peace plan for Ukraine he unveiled…in June last year. 

Prabowo is a fluent English speaker who relishes the global limelight but, in his nationalistic oratory, is sensitive to perceived slights by foreign powers.

While he is unlikely to overturn Indonesia’s long-standing commitment to an independent, non-aligned foreign policy, Prabowo will bring his own enthusiastic but unpredictable style, as evidenced by the hastily conjured peace plan for Ukraine he unveiled at a key regional defence conference in June last year. 

A clever tactician who has been working toward the presidency for at least two decades, Prabowo capitalized on Indonesians’ desire to see a continuation of Jokowi’s policies – and Jokowi’s desire to maintain influence once he steps down. 

But, when he gets his hands on the levers of power, Prabowo will want to set his own agenda.