Analysis-Indonesia’s Prabowo poised for power, but how will he rule?

By Thomson Reuters Feb 14, 2024 | 7:45 AM

By Kate Lamb

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia has seen many faces of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto over his decades in the public eye – the cheshire grin that accompanies his recent viral dance moves, flashes of his temper in fervent orations and the humiliation when he was dismissed from the military in 1998.

Now, it appears the latest portrait of Prabowo will be the one to be hung in government offices across the country as Indonesia’s next president after he took a commanding lead in unofficial results from Wednesday’s election.

Long a polarising figure, the ex-special forces general’s presumed resounding victory is being met with a mixture of elation and anxiety across the world’s third-largest democracy.

One major question is how well, and for how long, his alliance with outgoing President Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi”, will hold.

“It will hold as long as Prabowo judges it in his interests to hold and no longer,” said Liam Gammon, from the Australian National University (ANU), of the unsteady alliance between the two former rivals, “And when it doesn’t any longer, I would expect that Jokowi is quickly marginalized.”

After twice losing to Jokowi in 2014 and 2019, Prabowo, 72, has leaned into the deep popularity of Widodo-ism, even controversially naming the president’s son as his running mate in the election to rule the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

On the campaign trail Prabowo has promised policy “continuity”, but analysts say that is far from guaranteed.

“The key thing here is that Prabowo’s alignment with Jokowi has very much been an electoral strategy, not necessarily a governing strategy,” said Doug Ramage, of BowerGroupAsia.

“Make no mistake a President Prabowo would be his own president.”

Yet the calculation millions have made is that Jokowi will continue to wield influence through his son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, despite the vice president’s office holding little power.

Differences in opinion over cabinet appointments, Indonesia’s planned new capital, military and social service spending and the placement of family members in government could all lead to deteriorating relations, said political analyst Kevin O’Rourke.

“These are all things that are potential fissures between them because this arrangement, whereby the outgoing president expects continuity from his successor, is questionable given their very starkly different backgrounds,” he said.


In contrast to Jokowi, Prabowo is from an elite family, the son of a prominent Indonesian economist and the ex-son-law of the country’s former authoritarian ruler, Suharto.

A once promising special forces commander, Prabowo was dismissed from the military in May 1998 amid allegations of human rights abuses, which he has consistently denied.

Prabowo has campaigned on a platform of “Indonesia Maju” or “Developing Indonesia,” promising to give free lunches to the nation’s children, and achieve 7% economic growth.

Wednesday’s win is the pinnacle of a triumphant rehabilitation for the ex-commander, and one decades in the making.

“This victory should be the victory for all Indonesians,” he said on Wednesday night, claiming victory as unofficial tallies showed he held a commanding lead. “We will assemble a government team consisting of the best sons and daughters of Indonesia.”

In past campaigns, Prabowo was seen as a fiery nationalist who cosied up to hardline Islamist groups. More recently his image has softened, with a social-media focused campaign highlighting his Javanese dance moves and “gemoy”, or cute, demeanour.

“He’s had so many different personas. Why would you assume that this one sticks?” said ANU’s Gammon. “The one thing that Prabowo brings is uncertainty.”

Analysts say a Prabowo government would likely play a bigger role in the economy and his cabinet would follow the well-established pragmatism of Indonesian presidents, with a mixture of loyalists, political party appointments and technocrats.

On foreign affairs, Prabowo has pledged to continue Indonesia’s free and active policy, although an off-piste peace plan for Ukraine he proposed at the Shangri-La Dialogue last June offered a glimpse into his tendency to go it alone.

As defence minister, Prabowo Subianto has embarked on a major upgrade of Indonesia’s military hardware, but some deals, such as a now-scrapped plan to purchase 12 used Mirage jets from Qatar have sparked criticism about inflated costs and tenuous utility.

Once his victory is officially endorsed, Prabowo will assume the controls of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy on October 20.

Underlining worries that Indonesia is regressing democratically, the ex-commander has previously discussed abolishing presidential term limits and ending direct elections. During this campaign, he was the only candidate not to respond to a questionnaire from Human Rights Watch, or attend an event where candidates pledged to protect press freedom.

“The optimistic scenario is that you have a presidency broadly like Jokowi’s, where you see a steady chipping away at rights and institutions without a precipitous collapse of democracy,” said Gammon.

“But even then you’d expect a more openly vindictive treatment of perceived enemies.”

(Editing by Kay Johnson and Raju Gopalakrishnan)