American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce


Third Time A Charm

Third Time A Charm

Commentary by Wayne Forrest

Based on the quick counts Prabowo Subianto is predicted to be Indonesia’s next President, winning close to 60% of the vote; there will not be a July runoff. (Indonesia’s quick counts are reliable but official results will be released March 20.) The perennial candidate, 72, Prabowo takes office October 20. His rehabilitation since the dark days of 1998 when he was accused of kidnapping protesters, inciting riots that ultimately led to Suharto’s resignation, as well attempting a coup against Suharto’s successor Habibie, is remarkable, a testament to his dogged approach to building his support network over many years as well as his strategic decision to align himself with President Jokowi, Indonesia’s most popular politician, still enjoying stratospheric approval ratings. AICC members should expect a period of stability now with attention swinging to the emerging relationship between the outgoing and incoming administration. Prabowo pledged continuity with Jokowi’s policies. How will Jokowi influence his old rival. Will this be done directly and transparently or through intermediaries such as his son, Gibran, soon to be a VP.

Following the February 14th election, the business community in Indonesia experienced a collective sigh of relief. They mostly preferred one round as the expectation was that no matter who won things would not change much. Now begins the process of jockeying among coalition partners and influential oligarchs for ministerial, military, and diplomatic positions as well as access to the new administration; something Indonesians are quite good at. Fortunately, Indonesia’s free press, a robust rumor mill, and AICC’s own close contacts will help us identify the key persons and priorities of the next government.

You will be hearing more about this soon, but we are planning an event during Q4 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of AICC and US-Indonesia diplomatic relations and will work to have representatives of the incoming government join us.

Having run for President twice before Prabowo’s footprint on the internet is extensive; numerous articles, biographical sketches and interviews are available. He’s pretty much an open book. Like much of the canvas that Indonesia is, you can project just about anything you want on him: strongman wannabe, international statesman, hero, patriot, US advocate, protector, soldier, renaissance man. His English is impeccable. He reads widely, especially military history. Of the handful of Americans I know who have visited his ranch outside Jakarta, usually after one of his Presidential losses, all say Prabowo (who received extensive military training in the US) told them “I am a US boy, you should have supported me more”. Like all commanders he has a healthy ego, but so far Prabowo has projected humility and respect for the official process that ends in a March 20 announcement by the Electoral Commission.

Prabowo Subianto, named after his uncle who died in a battle with the Japanese, is from an illustrious family led by his father Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, the first Indonesian to earn a PhD in economics. Sumitro became Indonesia’s first Trade Minister in 1950 but distanced himself from President Sukarno’s socialist and anti-capitalist policies, eventually going into exile due to his association with “PRRI”, a Sumatra-based 1958 rebellion against the central government. The family lived in many countries, giving Prabowo wide experience with languages and cultures. He finished high school at the American school in London, returning to Indonesia after Suharto became President. He graduated Indonesia’s elite military college in 1970 and received training in the US at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. The commandant of one of them described him as one of the top two students he ever trained, the other is the current King of Jordan. His military career took off after he married one of President Suharto’s daughters. (they divorced years ago) Based on credible evidence that human rights abuses occurred while commanding an elite Army unit, he was discharged in 1998 and the US government banned his entry until 2019, when he became Jokowi’s Defense Minister. Prabowo denies his complicity in wrongdoing and no Indonesian court ever tried him. Prabowo self-exiled himself to Jordan in 1998 and began a successful business career. Returning a few years later, he began working with his younger brother Hashim, an important business player. Their company, Nusantara, has extensive interests in minerals processing, pulp and paper, oil and gas, and plantations.

His two failed Presidential campaigns, 2014 and 2019, were characterized by highly charged, anti-foreign rhetoric. He was known for sending chills up the spines of some members of the Chinese Indonesian business community who he accused of corruption. Many voters rallied to his “strongman image”, seeing in him a leader who has the strength to stand up for the country against special interests. Prabowo’s brand of populism compares with other varieties globally. He softened his image for the 2024 election, portraying himself as a fun-loving grandfather. Although his opponents are beginning to file protests alleging numerous voting irregularities and even fraud, and assuming these do not change results, Prabowo’s will be deemed to have won because voters wanted to sustain the economic conditions established by the current administration.
Prabowo’s economic policy is likely to mirror Jokowi’s at least in the short term. He will maintain open portals for trade and investment except in sectors of strategic interest such as mining and energy, emphasizing downstream industrial production and infrastructure, including continuing the building of Nusantara, the country’s new capital in Kalimantan. Based on his campaign rhetoric he may attempt to widen the number of export bans to include unprocessed and semi processed agricultural products, and its possible he could withdraw Indonesia’s support for international trade agreements such as the WTO which he has criticized as neo-colonialist. Prabowo, if his health allows, may travel more and court a greater international role for Indonesia. He probably will keep Indonesia in the middle between the US and China for economic purposes but strengthen maritime security. Its not clear yet what his approach to ASEAN will be. Following in his father’s footsteps, who held observer status at the new UN in the mid-1940’s representing the nascent republic, he would likely attend and speak at the annual UNGA. On military issues, he may move closer to the United States, especially the Navy; he has appeared supportive of AUSKUS, a partnership between the US, UK, and Australia that allows Australia to acquire nuclear powered submarines.

The international coverage of Indonesia’s election fits it into a narrative of democracy’s decline which is understandable. Under President Jokowi there were changes that weakened institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Commission and certainly the election of a former general and son-in-law of the autocratic President Suharto accused of human rights abuses adds to the argument. But these commentaries miss the point that since the reforms of 1998 Indonesia’s democracy has not progressed so far that a “decline”, although important, is all that meaningful. What seems to motivate Indonesia’s electorate is the notion of voting every five years. In between, few have the time or energy to engage in the civic activities that support a robust democracy. Hopefully that will emerge in the future. But with regularity Indonesia’s organizes itself every 5 years in a monumental effort to bring free and fair elections to 200 million voters, most of whom actually vote, unlike other democracies where participation levels are much lower. 6 million election workers travel to every corner of its sprawling archipelago to dip the fingers of over 70% of its eligible voters in a purple, halal ink, proving they have cast their ballots. However, the activities of parties and their members belie older traditions of deference and loyalty that are wrapped into webs of patronage. These have a much older history than elections. Voters, when quizzed, ambiguously praise their democracy wholeheartedly while criticizing their government and its leaders. They, with variation, know who is related to who, how this or that contract came about, and understand that power is not always with them and that bad actors can manipulate institutions such as the courts to stay out of trouble. Against this background the average Indonesian (it is estimated that 55% do not hold formal employment) may not ultimately care who is elected President as much as whether or not they are delivering the 9 basic commodities (rice, cooking oil, chills, sugar et.) known as the “sembako” at reasonable prices.

In the election of 2024, voters seem to have preferred the status quo, and the candidate that offered that message the best was Prabowo Subianto. Unlike in his other campaigns, Prabowo opted for what Indonesians crave most, stability. His rhetoric could still be fiery, but he also listened to practical advisors. It was not a foregone conclusion that Jokowi would align himself and his legacy with Prabowo. That could have happened with the charismatic Ganjar Pranowo, who was from his own party. Throughout much of 2022-2023 he led in the polls. However, Jokowi never bowed enough to its leader, former President Megawati. She made no moves to heal the rift that developed or give him a pathway within the party post Presidency. By October 2023, it became clear Jokowi had enough. When the Constitutional Court, led by his brother-in-law, lowered the eligibility age for national candidates, Jokowi’s son became Prabowo’s running mate; game over.

What won the election for Prabowo was Megawati’s obstinacy and President Jokowi’s successful development policies: 5% growth, stable currency, low inflation, pro investment and employment policies and subsidies for the poor. It also didn’t hurt that the incumbent government delivered rice aid to key communities in central and east Java right before the election. The urban-based middle class worried more about the democratic setbacks, such as the Constitutional Court ruling – as could be seen in the results for the Jakarta region where Prabowo received only 40% of the vote-but not the average voter. Going forward Prabowo would be smart to reassure Indonesians, and in particular the emerging middle class that he won’t return them to the autocratic days of his father-in-law.