Once disgraced, Indonesia’s ex-commander Prabowo on track for presidency

By Thomson Reuters Feb 14, 2024 | 8:03 AM

By Kate Lamb

JAKARTA (Reuters) -Dismissed from the military amid speculation of rights abuses, exiled in Jordan, and once banned from the United States, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto is now poised to be the country’s next leader on his third try for the office.

Prabowo, 72, claimed victory with a seemingly insurmountable lead in unofficial tallies of Wednesday’s vote after a campaign in which he had the presumed backing of his one-time election rival, incumbent President Joko Widodo, and the hugely popular president’s son as his running mate.

“This victory should be the victory for all Indonesians,” Prabowo said on Wednesday night, when he had about 58% of votes according to four pollsters, based on ballots counted in a sample of voting stations nationwide.

The former special forces commander has undergone a  remarkable image transformation since being appointed defence minister in 2019.

In recent years, he has cultivated a persona that is more charismatic statesman than the fiery, pious nationalist he earlier portrayed, analysts say.

And during the campaign, his chubby-cheeked AI-generated cartoon avatar made Korean-style finger hearts and cradled his beloved cat, Bobby, to the delight of Gen Z voters.

From an elite Indonesian family and once the son-in-law of  late strongman president Suharto, Prabowo has long been accused of involvement in the kidnapping of student activists in 1998 and human rights abuses in Papua and East Timor.

The allegations are unproven, and Prabowo has always denied  any responsibility.

The unofficial “quick count” results of Wednesday’s vote suggested his rebranding has worked.

Unable to run after serving the maximum two terms, Widodo, better known as Jokowi, appeared to signal his support for once bitter enemy Prabowo, who he defeated in the 2014 and 2019  elections.

With his 36-year-old son as a possible vice president,  Jokowi may be seeking to retain some influence in government,  analysts say.

By appointing Prabowo to his cabinet, Jokowi provided him  with a level of validation and visibility he had previously lacked, earning him red carpet treatment as defence minister on trips from Paris to Beijing, and the end of his de facto U.S. travel ban in 2020 when he visited the Pentagon.

His 9 million Instagram followers get to see snaps from his day job, interspersed with offerings of his cats, artistic black and white portraits, and vintage family photographs.

Many young Indonesians have become endeared to Prabowo,  particularly his awkward dance moves in public that have gone  viral on TikTok, helping him to tap a key demographic.

More than half of Indonesian voters are under 40, with  limited knowledge of the darker narratives of his hardline  military past and his ascent under Suharto’s autocratic rule.

“Prabowo’s team is clearly portraying Prabowo in a ‘softer’  way in an effort to win over undecided voters. It’s a change  from previous campaigns where we’ve seen nationalist populist  Prabowo, and pro-Islamist Prabowo,” said Ross Tapsell, from the  Australian National University.

In another sign of the image makeover, in a television  interview, Prabowo, known for his legendary temper, came across  as humorous and avuncular.

Referring to his time as a soldier, Prabowo said: “Maybe the  perception of me was that I was tough, scary. I am not scary  now, right?”

(Editing by Kay Johnson and Raju Gopalakrishnan)