May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Prabowo's record in need of review

Published: Dec 01, 2023
Letter to the Editor

With less than three months to go until Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections, campaigning is in full swing. Inside Indonesia publishes quarterly themed editions that require significant lead time to ensure rigorous review and editing processes, and we have minimal resources to provide more timely coverage of current affairs. However, a letter sent to our editor in recent weeks has reminded us of the ever-pressing need for transparent, objective, and insightful analysis of Indonesian politics and society. Our receipt of this letter - which we publish in full below with the permission of the correspondent, Winarko - coincided with our co-founder, Pat Walsh, releasing a new Background Paper on presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Alongside Winarko’s letter, we publish a summary of Pat's report with a link to the full paper.

We also encourage readers to take a look at these related articles from the Inside Indonesia archive:

Amalinda Savirani, ‘Gaining the grassroots vote’, Edition 135 (Jan-Mar 2019)
Gerry van Klinken, ‘Prabowo and human rights’, Edition 116 (Apr-Jun 2014)
Eve Warburton, ‘The business of politics’, Edition 117 (Jul-Sep 2014)
Aboeprijadi Santoso, ‘Gerindra and “Greater Indonesia”’, Edition 98 (Oct-Dec 2009)
Dirk Tomsa, ‘The eagle has crash-landed’, Edition 97 (Jul-Sep 2009)
David Bourchier, ‘More educated, more ruthless’, Edition 53 (Jan-Mar 1998)

Dear Pak/Bu Editor of Inside Indonesia,

My name is Winarko, just an ordinary Indonesian citizen interested in Indonesian current politics. My interest mainly stems from the fact that I'm part of a generation that experienced firsthand the 1998 movement. Lately I have been increasingly worried about the future of Indonesian democratic politics, especially about Prabowo's remarkable comeback as frontrunner in the upcoming election, and what he could and would do if elected as Indonesian president.

Let me begin with my understanding of Prabowo’s politics after the 2019 election. After this election, I very much expected the potential threat of Prabowo’s comeback in Indonesian democracy to diminish (and with him Orde Baru (New Order) politics). Consecutive unsuccessful bids at the presidency will, I assumed, bleed him dry of capital, and old age will, naturally, put a check on his perennial ambition. His withdrawal from politics would thus represent the completion of our democratic transition, and Indonesia would be truly free of the threat of 'ancient politic' recoil.

However, Jokowi's politics have provided an unnecessary political lifeline to the waning Prabowo ambition. In what is seemingly a genuine post-election move (an almost admirable Indonesian trait of embracing ex-political opponents and settling popular divides), Jokowi’s appointment of Prabowo as his minister of defence not only prolonged Prabowo's political life but also emboldened it. Prabowo, as many have suspected, is not only a ruthless commander, but also master tactician in Indonesian politics post 2019.

Not only did he play the role of humbled ex-enemy in the eyes of Jokowi (and I think also of the Indonesian public), he gained a foothold in Jokowi's politics and gradually drove a wedge between Jokowi and his own party. This endeavour to show himself to Jokowi as a truly loyal (and grateful) old adversary is a craft not seen in modern Indonesian politics (though you'll find similar stories through Indonesian pre-colonial history). Prabowo’s carefully toned-down rhetoric (which seemed to almost mimic Jokowi’s) was employed on countless occasions, and he professed himself to be an enlightened political pupil of the president. He expressed adoration for his former enemy, and professed his total 'submission' to the ‘Jokowi's way’. It was indeed a political spectacle to behold.

Never once has he shown his true colours, even when he plays his role as minister of defence. In accordance with these strategies, he also embraced the new social media way of public communication ('gemoy' (chubby and funny) senior citizen, hilarious dancing, numerous cat instagram posting), thus he has been able to reach a wider, younger Indonesian public who never experienced Orde Baru and his role in it. This combination of a perfect display of Jokowi-influenced humility and changed politician persona, not only garnered him status among Jokowi's men, but I believe also distanced (or rather, cleansed) him of his past 'sin', and has proven far more effective than any of his old method of refuting his role in the 1998 kidnappings of student activists and other major human right violations.

The Prabowo-Gibran ticket is presenting the former military general and hard man in a new light, embracing the term 'gemoy' meaning adorable and funny, to describe the 72 year old presidential candidate / Image:

All of these developments, combined with Jokowi's savviness as an experienced second term president, bring us to today's political landscape. The dynamic of the 2024 presidential election (especially the last couple of months) has left many of us perplexed. Jokowi's skyrocketing public approval, his almost total mastery of political party and business elites, his (almost unimaginable) nepotistic turn, his son’s vice presidency bid alongside Prabowo, and turning his back of his party (PDI-P), has elevated Prabowo’s bid for the presidency to heights never seen in his previous campaigns. With Jokowi's masterful and almost total control of the military and police forces with their reach down to the village level, combined with Prabowo’s own networks of influence, his presidential bid – almost absurdly – seems ensured from a mile away.

Thus, I come to the reason for this email.

I don't know your current editorial policy regarding the Indonesian political landscape, but from what I remember in my old days as a student, your coverage of contemporary Indonesian politics is always remarkable. However, the latest development of Indonesian political dynamics is fairly absent in your latest edition. Perhaps the rapid and fast pace of the dynamics before the election is indeed incompatible with your scheduling as a periodical, but I really miss your pieces on Indonesian current politics, because a comprehensive and clear account on this latest Indonesian historical turn is remarkably lacking, especially from an outsider’s point of view.

Do we really have to accept Prabowo's rise in Indonesian politics (which I think is much more frightening prospect than any potential harm Bong-bong Marcos brought to Philippine) as an inevitable reality? What does his ascendancy mean for the Indonesia’s democratic transition? In 2019, American journalist Allan Nairn suggested that Prabowo’s team had plans to 'crush' his opponent if he won that election. Is such a threat still a possibility, and will it expand to not only far-right groups, but all democratic voices? Does the military's role in Indonesian politics return with a vengeance? Is my suspicion that Prabowo’s role-play as a fluffy pet of Jokowi will end the moment he is sworn in, and he will manifest as neo-orba? Is it a reasonable concern or is it just exaggerated trauma of the past? What has history taught us?

I don't want this to sound dramatic (and absolutely didn't intend this letter to be some kind of distress call), but please write and focus more on this matter. Your insight and analysis will, not only help us understand current politics, but especially, better equip us to anticipate what follows Prabowo's rise to power.

What do you think?

Salam hormat dari lereng Semeru, Malang, Jatim


22 November 2023

Inside Indonesia 154: Oct-Dec 2023

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