Indonesia / The key to suspected war criminal Prabowo Subianto’s campaign against Jokowi

By: Paul Millar - Posted on: June 8, 2018 | Current Affairs

Defeated by Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in the 2014 presidential elections, Indonesia’s controversial military strongman Prabowo Subianto is hoping to ride a wave of hardline Islamist sentiment all the way to the presidency in next year’s elections

Indonesian presidential candidate for the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Prabowo Subianto Photo: Bagus Indahono / EPA – EFE

Who is he?
Once the son-in-law of Indonesian dictator Suharto, former general Prabowo Subianto has maintained close ties with Indonesia’s dynastic families throughout the nation’s transition towards democratic rule. It is perhaps these ties to the nation’s political establishment that have allowed Subianto to maintain a level of popularity and influence in the main Gerindra opposition party despite long-standing allegations of war crimes against the pro-independence movement in Timor-Leste during his tenure there in the early 90s. Subianto has also been accused of orchestrating the disappearance of a number of pro-democracy activists during the 1998 protests in the nation’s capital.

Why is he in the news?
Despite losing to newcomer ‘Jokowi’ in the bitterly fought 2014 presidential elections, Subianto has once again reared his head as a rival to Jokowi’s re-election next year after the Gerindra party named him as their presidential candidate. But with Subianto’s war chest reportedly still running low after the extravagances of the 2014 campaign, the question of whether the former general will be able to marshal both the wealth – and political capital – to challenge the still-popular Jokowi continues to plague the political establishment. 

Illustration: Antiochus Omissi for SEA Globe

What’s different this time?
Vedi Hadiz, professor of Asian studies at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, told Southeast Asia Globe that while Subianto may be content to position himself as a kingmaker in next year’s election, the former general had long had the presidency in his crosshairs. “[Subianto] is dictated by his ego,” he said. “He likely thinks he was born to rule. Jokowi is now a known quantity and so he is no longer the ‘fresh’ presence in Indonesian politics that he used to be. Some of the president’s supporters are disappointed that he has not turned out to be the reformer that was promised – but it was silly to expect him to be that in the first place.” 

Can he defeat Jokowi?
If last year’s disastrous Jakarta gubernatorial election is anything to go by, then yes. The vicious campaign saw long-term Jokowi ally and Chinese-Christian Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama not only crushed politically, but imprisoned on trumped-up blasphemy charges after months of hardline Islamist protests. “This is what [Subianto] hopes will be his trump card,” Hadiz said. “Those associated with his camp have cultivated support amongst many of the most hardline of Islamist elements very consciously. In many ways, their informal alliance with these elements against Ahok was a test case for 2019. The key is to try to effectively connect these Islamist sentiments with widespread socio-economic grievances in Indonesian society.”

This article was published in the June 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.