Who is Prabowo Subianto, the Ex-General Who is Indonesia’s Next President?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Who is Prabowo Subianto, the Ex-General Who is Indonesia’s Next President?

The ex-general’s ascent to the presidency of Southeast Asia’s most populous nation crowns a long and controversial career.

Who is Prabowo Subianto, the Ex-General Who is Indonesia’s Next President?

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, centre right, and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, greet their supporters during their campaign rally at Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File

A wealthy ex-general with ties to both Indonesia’s popular outgoing president and its dictatorial past looks set to be its next president, after unofficial tallies showed him taking a clear majority in the first round of voting.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto presented himself as heir to the immensely popular sitting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, vowing to continue the modernization agenda that’s brought rapid growth and vaunted Indonesia into the ranks of middle-income countries.

“We should not be arrogant. We should not be proud. We should not be euphoric. We still have to be humble. This victory must be a victory for all Indonesian people,” Prabowo said in a speech broadcast on national television from a sports stadium on the night of the election.

But Prabowo will enter office with unresolved questions about the costs of extraction-driven growth for the environment and traditional communities, as well as his own links to torture, disappearances and other human rights abuses in the final years of the brutal Suharto dictatorship, which he served as a lieutenant general.

A former rival of Jokowi who lost two presidential races to him, Prabowo embraced the popular leader to run as his heir, even choosing Jokowi’s son as his running mate, a choice that ran up against constitutional age limits and has activists worried about an emerging political dynasty in the 25-year-old democracy.

Prabowo’s win is not yet official. His two rivals have not yet conceded and the official results could take up to a month to be tabulated, but election night “quick counts” showed him taking over 55 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Those counts, conducted by polling agencies and based on millions of ballots sampled from across the country, have proved accurate in past elections.

Prabowo was born in 1951 to one of Indonesia’s most powerful families, the third of four children. His father, Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was an influential politician, and a minister under Presidents Sukarno and Suharto.

Prabowo’s father first worked for Sukarno, but later turned against him and was forced into exile. Prabowo spent most of his childhood overseas and speaks French, German, English, and Dutch.

The family returned to Indonesia after General Suharto came to power in 1967 following a failed left-wing coup. Suharto brutally dealt with dissenters and was accused of stealing billions of dollars of state funds for himself, family and close associates. Suharto dismissed the allegations even after leaving office in 1998.

Prabowo enrolled in Indonesia’s Military Academy in 1970, graduating in 1974 and serving in the military for nearly three decades. In 1976, Prabowo joined the Indonesian National Army Special Force, called Kopassus, and was commander of a group that operated in what is now East Timor.

Human rights groups have claimed that Prabowo was involved in a series of human rights violations in Timor-Leste in the 1980s and 90s, when Indonesia occupied the now-independent nation. Prabowo has denied those allegations.

Prabowo and other members of Kopassus were banned from traveling to the U.S. for years over the alleged human rights abuses they committed against the people of Timor-Leste. This ban lasted until 2020, when it was effectively lifted so he could visit the U.S. as Indonesia’s defense minister.

In 1983, he married Suharto’s daughter Siti Hediati Hariyadi.

More allegations of human rights abuses led to Prabowo being forced out of the military. He was dishonorably discharged in 1998, after Kopassus soldiers kidnapped and tortured political opponents of Suharto, his then-father-in-law. Of 22 activists kidnapped that year, 13 remain missing. Several of his men were tried and convicted, but Prabowo never faced trial.

He never commented on these accusations, but went into self-imposed exile in Jordan in 1998.

A number of former democracy activists have joined his campaign. Budiman Sudjatmiko, a politician who was a democracy activist in 1998, said that reconciliation is necessary to move forward. Sudjatmiko left the governing Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle to join Prabowo’s campaign team.

Sudjatmiko said that the international focus on Prabowo’s human rights record was overblown. “Developed countries don’t like leaders from developing countries who are brave, firm and strategic,” he said.

Prabowo returned from Jordan in 2008, and helped to found the Gerindra Party. He ran for the presidency twice, losing to Jokowi both times. He refused to acknowledge the results at first, but accepted Jokowi’s offer of the defense minister position in 2019, in a bid for unity.

He has vowed to continue Jokowi’s economic development plans, which capitalized on Indonesia’s abundant nickel, coal, oil and gas reserves and led Southeast Asia’s biggest economy through a decade of rapid growth and modernization that vastly expanded the country’s networks of roads and railways.

That includes the $30 billion project to build a new capital city called Nusantara. A report by a coalition of NGOs claimed that Prabowo’s family would profit from the Nusantara project, thanks to land and mining interests the family holds in East Kalimantan, the site of the new city. A member of the family denied the report’s allegations.

Prabowo and his family also have business ties to Indonesia’s palm oil, coal and gas, mining, agriculture, and fishery industries.

Prabowo bristles at international criticism over human rights and other topics, but he’s expected to keep the country’s pragmatic approach to power politics. Under Jokowi, Indonesia has strengthened defense ties with the U.S. while courting Chinese investment.

“Countries like us, countries as big as us, countries as rich as us, are always envied by other powers,” Prabowo said during his victory speech after the election. “Therefore, we must be united. United and harmonious.”

The former rivals became tacit allies: Indonesian presidents don’t typically endorse candidates, but Prabowo chose Jokowi’s son, 36-year-old Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice presidential running mate, and Jokowi coyly favored Prabowo over the candidate of his own former party.

Gibran is below the statutory minimum age of 40, but was allowed to run under an exception created by the Constitutional Court — then headed by Jokowi’s brother-in-law — allowing current and former regional governors to run at age 35.

“This is the first time in Indonesian history that a sitting president has a relative who won in a presidential election,” said Yoes Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta. “It could be said that the Jokowi political dynasty has been established at the highest level of Indonesian government.”

Prabowo has also had close ties with hard-line Islamists, whom he used to undermine his opponents.

But for the 2024 election, Prabowo projected a softer image that has resonated with Indonesia’s large youth population, including videos of him dancing on stage and ads showing digital anime-like renderings of him roller-skating through Jakarta’s streets.

“We will be the president and vice president and government for all Indonesian people,” said Prabowo during his victory speech. “I will lead, with Gibran (to) protect and defend all Indonesian people, whatever tribe, whatever ethnic group, whatever race, religion, whatever social background. It will be our responsibility for all Indonesian people to safeguard their interests.”