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Meet Indonesia's new strongman

Persuasion - February 23, 2024

Joe Rachman – "Do you all want to see me dance?" He called to the crowd, which roared back its approval. The short and almost spherical 72-year-old obliged them by jigging about the stage in his signature baby blue shirt.

Meet Prabowo Subianto: ex-special forces, ex-general, ex-son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, a man guilty of serious human rights violations according to credible accusations, and now Indonesia's president-elect.

On February 14, Prabowo cruised to victory with around 58% of the vote. The victory has set alarm bells ringing in Indonesian civil society. The election was, according to various observers, the most compromised since the end of Indonesia's dictatorship in 1998. State institutions worked to tilt the playing field towards Prabowo. His military background, his past skepticism about democracy, and his fiery nationalism all seem to point to a strongman in the making.

But what does "strongman" mean in an Indonesian context?

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Indonesia was ruled as a dictatorship under a man known as Suharto. Prabowo started his career in the military during this period, where he served in the special forces during the bloody Indonesian occupation of East Timor in the 1970s. He led the squad that killed the East Timorese president, Nicolau dos Reis Lobato, and was implicated in massacres in both Timor and Papua.

As Suharto's regime – known as the "New Order" – crumbled in 1998 in the face of pro-democracy protests, Prabowo was implicated in the kidnapping of 23 democracy activists, 13 of whom remain missing and are presumed dead. There is evidence he may also have tried to launch a coup to install himself in power.

Since then, Prabowo has rebranded himself as gemoy – cute – an old grandpa who dances, cuddles cats, and whose campaign posters show cartoons of him looking (somewhat hauntingly) like a Pixarified baby. This is a dramatic change for a man who used to arrive at rallies in military uniform riding stallions to deliver nationalist diatribes against foreign plunderers and internal enemies.

But flashes of the old persona could be seen on the campaign trail, particularly in his warnings about nefarious foreign forces – an accommodating category that could easily include Prabowo's critics or protestors. In his victory speech Prabowo called for unity on grounds of national security, declaring "We are aware that countries like ours, countries as big as ours, countries as rich as ours are always envied by other powers – that's why we have to be united."

Prabowo's rise to power owes a lot to one man: the outgoing president Joko Widodo, aka "Jokowi." In 2014 Jokowi came in as a fresh face, the first president since democratization not linked to the old political oligarchies or the military. After ten years, a steadily growing economy, the introduction of universal healthcare, and a canny sense of what voters want, Jokowi enjoys near-North Korean approval ratings at around 79.5%.

The hopes that he might bring political reform, however, have faded. In the process of securing his grip on government, he has overseen the defanging of the once independent anti-corruption agency, cemented his control over the police, and meddled with the internal politics of the parties that support him.

His immense popularity has let him shape the dynamics of his succession. "President Jokowi has opened the door to make Indonesia go back to the New Order darkness," says Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. He cites the ways state institutions bent the rules to aid Prabowo's victory, including the last-minute ruling by the Constitutional Court – led by Jokowi's brother-in-law – that made an exception to the law requiring vice presidents to be aged 40 or above. This let Prabowo select Jokowi's 36-year-old son Gibran as his running mate, and benefit from Jokowi's own sky-high popularity. Indonesian presidents aren't supposed to endorse candidates, but the message was clear.

Other state institutions played their role in stacking the deck. Politicized corruption investigations helped corral key party leaders behind Prabowo's candidacy. There is evidence of police harassing the presidential campaigns of Prabowo's opponents and pressuring local politicians supportive of them to back Prabowo instead. Whistle-blowers and critics of Prabowo and the government have faced prosecution.

The losing presidential campaigns are now alleging "massive and structural" fraud – although there is no evidence of large-scale ballot stuffing. And, thankfully, the election campaign did not see the sort of widespread political violence the Suharto regime deployed in the days of the dictatorship.

But many people are worried that Prabowo will now avail himself of the same tools used by Jokowi and the state to further undermine Indonesia's democratic processes. Prabowo is known to admire men on horseback who make history as the fathers of nations, regardless of democratic niceties. As a child he was apparently once found posing in front of a mirror pretending to be Charles de Gaulle. One young associate of Prabowo's compared him to Don Corleone, a nickname that captures the president-elect's mixture of charm and threat.

Prabowo's sense of impatience with the constraints of dull democracy is not mere aesthetics. He has repeatedly expressed skepticism about key constitutional reforms implemented post-1998 aimed at buttressing democracy in Indonesia, instead preferring Indonesia's unaltered 1945 constitution. To his mind, and that of not a few Indonesian politicians, "Western"-style democracy is not a good fit for the country. Electoral contestation might be okay, but this has to have limits so as not undermine national unity.

According to this way of thinking, a harmonious Indonesian democracy need not even have an opposition. Indonesia is curious in that most political parties arrive on the scene nearly free of ideology, or much in the way of specific policy commitments. This means that presidents can find large coalitions, allowing them to run politics like a royal court by playing magnates off against each other. Prabowo has expressed an aspiration that his government include every single political party: an oligarchic bargain to carve up the pie.

Still, Prabowo's situation is complex. It's unclear how much of his popularity he has simply borrowed from Jokowi, who will expect deference in return for the support he leant Prabowo in the election.

Meanwhile, Prabowo will have to deal with personal interests among Indonesia's big political players. Jokowi was able to undermine the independence of the country's anti-corruption agency and put a chill on press freedom, moves which some of Indonesia's elites welcomed. However, his plans to change the constitution to let him run for a third term ultimately seem to have been blocked by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president who sponsored Jokowi's own presidential run and controls the largest party in parliament. Should Prabowo look over-mighty, other elites might try to push back in similar fashion.

But the most meaningful constraint might be public opinion. While Prabowo is popular now, there is no guarantee this will last. According to surveys, Indonesians remain fiercely pro-democracy, and obvious anti-democratic moves – such as abolishing direct elections for local offices or even the presidency, which Prabowo has flirted with in the past – could spark a sharp backlash. In the final days before the vote there were already signs of students and other groups starting to push back. Large-scale protests carry risks of their own, as Prabowo's instincts would likely be to crack down hard. The situation could turn explosive.

[Joseph Rachman is a freelance journalist covering Indonesia and other stories from around Southeast Asia.]

Source: https://www.persuasion.community/p/meet-indonesias-new-strongma