Prabowo Subianto Claims Victory in Indonesian Presidential Election

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Prabowo Subianto Claims Victory in Indonesian Presidential Election

With unofficial results pointing to a landslide victory, attention turns to how the former special forces commander plans to govern.

Prabowo Subianto Claims Victory in Indonesian Presidential Election

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, left, delivers a speech as his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, listens during a gathering with supporters and members of their campaign team in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has claimed victory in yesterday’s presidential election in Indonesia, on the basis of unofficial results that show him winning well in excess of 50 percent of the popular vote.

Unofficial vote counts from four major polling agencies, which have proven accurate at past elections, estimate Prabowo’s vote in the 57-58 percent range, according to a Reuters report. To avoid a run-off election in June, Prabowo needed to win more than 50 percent of the vote and at least a fifth of the votes in half of the country’s provinces.

In a triumphant victory speech yesterday evening, the 72-year-old former general thanked his supporters for delivering him to the high office that he has pursued for two decades.

“Even though we are grateful, we can’t be arrogant,” Prabowo told a crowd of supporters packed into the Senayan sports stadium in Jakarta. “We must remain humble.”

The speech also saw him pay tribute to past Indonesian presidents, including his ex-father-in-law and former authoritarian ruler, Suharto. “Regarding the second president, I know him quite well,” he said to cheers from the crowd. “Why are you laughing? You guys don’t believe it? With the second president, I often had lunch with him.”

The decisive victory is a case of third time lucky for Prabowo, who ran unsuccessfully against President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the elections of 2014 and 2019, before joining his cabinet as defense minister. He also ran unsuccessfully as a vice-presidential candidate in 2009.

As with the 2022 electoral victory of the Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., his victory crowns a career scarred by controversy. Prabowo first rose to prominence as a military commander under Suharto’s New Order, which governed Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. As one of the administration’s chief enforcers and the commander of Kopassus, the army’s special forces, Prabowo has been credibly implicated in a litany of human rights abuses. These included atrocities committed in the conflict zones of East Timor and Aceh, and the kidnapping and torture of 22 political activists during the protests that brought down the New Order in 1998, 13 of whom remain missing. These claims saw him dismissed from the military after Suharto’s fall and for many years he was banned from entering the United States. (The U.S. lifted the ban after Prabowo was appointed defense minister in 2019.)

During his two previous election campaigns, Prabowo waxed nostalgic about the New Order years and was quite open about his intention to roll back some of the democratic reforms that were introduced after Suharto’s fall. In a 2015 paper, Edward Aspinall of the Australian National University described Prabowo as an “oligarchic populist” who represented “a classically authoritarian-populist challenge of a sort that is common in democratic regimes characterized by pervasive patronage politics, weak institutions, and highly decentralized governance.”

Prabowo seemingly learned from his failures in those two contests. Again like President Marcos, Prabowo used a high-intensity social media campaign to recast his persona and drown out the echoes of past misdeeds. He adopted a “cuddly” avuncular image, appearing in TikTok videos petting his cats and performing his “happy dance” at political rallies.

This year, Prabowo “is running a very different and effective campaign,” Kennedy Muslim, an analyst at pollster Indikator Politik, told the Financial Times. “It’s a lot less angry and much more youth-oriented.”

At the same time, Prabowo has distanced himself from the hardline Islamic elements that he courted in 2014 and 2019. Crucially, he also positioned himself as Jokowi’s successor, and sought to tap into the latter’s still sky-high popularity by appointing his son, 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice-presidential running-mate. Indeed, in some places, the succession plan was made explicit, with Prabowo and Gibran appearing on campaign posters along with Jokowi.

This close relationship has been the subject of considerable controversy. Gibran was only able to become Prabowo’s vice-presidential candidate after a controversial Constitutional Court ruling in October, which created an exception to the usual minimum age of 40 years for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The ruling appeared tailor-made to allow Gibran to run, and the fact that the chief judge at the time was Jokowi’s brother-in-law was evidence enough for critics that Jokowi was improperly interfering with the election process. The goal, these critics say, is to ensure his power survives beyond the end of his term in October of this year.

The past weekend saw the release of a documentary titled “Dirty Vote,” directed by activist and filmmaker Dandhy Dwi Laksono, which alleges that Jokowi has been using state resources to swing the presidential election in favor of Prabowo. As of election day, the 117-minute film had been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, and its allegations have dominated discussions of the election on Indonesian social media.

Other critics have made claims of outright vote rigging, though these have not yet been substantiated and in any event are unlikely to account for the massive margin of Prabowo’s victory. In an article for the Jakarta Post yesterday, Eric Jones of Northern Illinois University argued that a full rigging of the election was implausible. “If we believe in democracy, it behooves us to give the benefit of the doubt to the vote count, and not only because of how far-fetched ‘The Steal’ would be to actually carry out,” he wrote. However, the aforementioned pre-election machinations suggest that such outright fraud was probably unnecessary.

In any event, Prabowo’s New Order history and disparaging past comments about democratic norms have Indonesian civil society fearful of what his presidency will bring. “As expected Prabowo is winning. Welcome to Indonesia’s dark age,” Victoria Koman, an exiled human rights lawyer who works on Papua issues, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) yesterday. In a possible sign of things to come, the director of “Dirty Vote” and three leading Indonesian scholars who appeared in the documentary have been reported to the police.

Beyond this, it is hard to say how Prabowo will govern. As suggested above, the former general has run as a continuity candidate and has promised to carry on Jokowi’s impressive economic legacy. This has focused on the construction of vital infrastructure and the attraction of foreign investment, especially in critical minerals processing and adjacent manufacturing sectors. This will be sweetened by populist measures designed to create jobs and benefit the Indonesians on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

Public opinion polls have shown that for much of the Indonesian population, these pocketbook concerns take precedence over concerns about democratic backsliding and past violations of human rights from an era that a significant chunk of the electorate is too young to remember.

“The winning formula in this election was always going to be convincing the public that this record would be maintained and built upon over the next five years,” my colleague James Guild noted earlier this week. “And on the eve of the election, Prabowo Subianto is the candidate who has done that most effectively.”

As Jacqui Baker of Murdoch University, the host of the Talking Indonesia Podcast, wrote on X, Prabowo’s scope for action will be determined by the distribution of power in the House of Representatives, the results of which have yet to be announced. She wrote that this “will tell us something of the scope of [presidential] power and the kind of coalitional beast that will reign.”