Prabowo Subianto | From Indonesia’s ‘strongman’ General to ‘cute-and-cuddly’ presidential candidate

The party started almost a year ago. On Instagram, a 71-year-old former military general posed wearing a white hoodie and a mild smile. To his followers, it made him look “ganteng”, “gemes” and “gemoy”. Handsome, cute. At election rallies and interviews over the next months, the General perfected his signature dance moves — an awkward flapping of the arms, a disciplined sway of the shoulders. The commander was decades ago linked to military brutality and abductions; but today, he has cultivated a figure that has charmed his supporters, who have branded themselves the Gemoy Squad. At the final rally, he shot hearts at the audience before singing an offkey rendition of Indonesia’s old independence song. People cried, ambulances were called.

Welcome to Prabowo Subianto’s dance party. An invitation to young Indonesians to celebrate the 2024 election, the largest one-day electoral exercise in the world, with joy. Mr. Subianto has much to be joyful about. On February 14, Mr. Subianto declared victory in a historic three-way presidential race, with unofficial counts showing a significant lead over his opponents. The soldier, who turned statesman two decades ago, had contested unsuccessfully twice before, changed his tack from being a populist to a loyalist, and transformed his image from strongman to cute, cuddly grandfather.

His time has come. It may take up to a month for official counts, but analysts say Mr. Subianto is likely to succeed the wildly popular Joko Widodo (known as ‘Jokowi’) to be the archipelago’s next President, with Mr. Widodo’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka as the Vice President. This is the first change in leadership in a decade, and to his young supporters, Mr. Subianto promises political continuity and economic prosperity. To his critics, who remember darker days, Mr. Subianto stands as a relic of Indonesia’s autocratic past; even a bellwether of its threatened democratic future.

The front page of a local English newspaper shows Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka in Jakarta on February 15, 2024.
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A political elite

Mr. Subianto was born into an aristocratic family in Jakarta in 1951. His lineage goes back to the sultans of Mataram,— Javanese rulers who came before the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. His father, the famed economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, became a vocal critic of the nation’s founding president Sukarno and went into exile, shifting the family from Singapore to London, Kuala Lumpur to Zurich. The young Mr. Subianto spoke in an interview about early experiences of racism and “a strong sense of superiority among white people” in a new post-colonial world. “They often insulted me at school. I was always part of the minority…Because we were often bullied, often insulted, we became tough,” he told The Politic.

The family returned to Indonesia only in the late 1960s, at the beginning of autocrat Suharto’s three-year-long reign. Mr. Subianto would eventually marry Siti Hediati Harijadi, Suharto’s second daughter.

One of Mr. Subianti’s role models is Turkish military figure Atatürk. His house is lined with books, oil paintings of horses, and vintage photographs of Sukarno, according to a Sydney Morning Herald article. In other interviews, Mr. Subianto has expressed his love for animals and has reportedly instructed his staff to not harm any creature in his mountain retreat home in West Java. “When we grow up and see human nature, there’s betrayal, perfidy, lying.” It’s easier with animals, he said in an interview. “You are loyal to them. They are loyal to you.”

When asked in an interview why he dances, he said he draws inspiration from his grandfather. “Every time there is good news or happy news, he would always dance like that.”

A controversial past

A young Mr. Subianto received military training in the 1980s from the U.S. military station then called Fort Benning, and rose through the ranks to become a commander of the special armed forces Kopassus. There, Mr. Subianto was accused of fomenting anti-Chinese riots and directing the killing of separatists in East Timor, which Indonesia was occupying at the time. He denied responsibility and later remarked: “They had to have a fall guy, somebody to take responsibility.” This sentiment prevailed after a 1996 mission in Papua too, when he allegedly used a Red Cross insignia on his helicopter to free European hostages, a sign that may have drawn villagers out into the open. Two hostages were freed, hundreds of locals killed. “I should be given a knighthood by your government… I put my own life at risk and my soldiers were killed,” Mr. Subianto told a Financial Times reporter in 2013.

In 1998, when Suharto’s regime fell at the peak of the Asian financial crisis, Mr. Subianto was also dishonourably discharged from the military for his role in human rights abuses, including the disappearance of 23 democracy activists (13 of whom were never found). He was briefly banned from travel to the U.S. The allegations have not been proven in court, and Mr. Subianto has never accepted or denied the allegations. “I’m a proud alumnus of the Indonesian military,” he said in a 2017 interview.

The military career came to an end. Mr. Subianto’s went into self-imposed exile to Jordan in 2002, supported by his brother Hashim who had built his wealth upon oil, palm and mineral exchange dealings. In a 2017 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr. Subianto remarked that he could have enjoyed a simpler life of mountain retreats surrounded by horses and purple bougainville, but he feared Indonesia was becoming a “banana republic”. With Hashim’s financial backing, the former military general started Gerindra, the Great Indonesian Movement Party. Who were his role models in this political journey? Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra (who faced similar charges of human rights violations). Thaksin was a “bit abrasive, divisive”, but “got things done and the poor love him”, he told FT. Also on this list: Jawaharlal Nehru who “came from came from a wealthy family but always defended the poor”.

A CIA internal intelligence assessment, back in 1983, like a prophecy predicted the captain exemplified “the type of officer who could rise to national leadership”. The now-declassified documents added: “We believe that President Suharto may eventually look to his son-in-law to succeed him both as national leader and as guardian of the Suharto family fortunes.” 

A ‘TikTok General’

Prophecies don’t come with a timeline. Mr. Subianto’s presidential aspirations have been 22 years in the making. He failed to secure a nomination from Suharto’s party in 2004. He ran a populist campaign in 2014, arguing that the system is diseased.. He alleged electoral fraud upon losing to the incumbent Mr. Widodo, which sparked deadly riots in Jakarta. He lost again in 2019, and was later given the defence portfolio under Mr. Widodo’s cabinet.

2024 was different on two accounts. One, there was a political transformation. He went from being a hardline nationalist and Islamist to a loyalist, integrating himself with Indonesia’s political elite. Mr. Widodo, who has served two full terms in office, enjoys an approval rating of more than 80%, with Indonesians largely favourable to the development and social welfare measures he has put in place. “Anyone who has caught Widodo’s blessing has the keys to the presidential palace,” said human rights advocate Andreas Harsono in an interview. He swapped corruption charges against his rivals in favour of praising them and making “political courtesy visits” to his rivals. Mr. Widodo has not given his explicit approval to any candidate, but his son Gibran’s pick as Mr. Subianto’s running mate is seen as tacit approval. Mr. Subianto also aspires to be the first President in Indonesia’s history under whom every single party will be in the cabinet, a pledge to continue the legacy of coalition governments in the last two decades. Scholar Marcus Meitzner in an interview argued that the General is framing himself as a “president for everyone” and covering all ideological elements of Indonesian society. If one opponent Anies Baswedan is too religious, and the other Ganjar Pranowo a leftist national, then Mr. Subianto presents “a blend of all of the ideological currents.”

His outfits hint at this fluidity too: he went from wearing Safari suits to double-breasted blazers, and now casual untucked hanging shirts.

Two, Mr. Subianto’s popularity this time around leveraged Indonesia’s young electorate, who comprise more than half of Indonesia’s 204 million eligible voters spread across some 17,000 islands. This is also a demographic that has no living memory of Mr. Subianto’s autocratic past. Analysts note his campaign has been designed for the TikTok generation, packaging him as a ‘cuddly dancing grandpa’, his new avatar presented on posters plastered across Indonesia. Mr. Subianto’s Instagram is well-curated, with pictures of food, vintage family portraits, dance moves, and his cat Bobby shared with his 11 million followes (Bobby has an individual Instagram account too). “Prabowo’s team is portraying Prabowo in a ‘softer’ way in an effort to win over undecided voters…” Ross Tapsell of the Australian National University told Reuters. The avatar is everywhere, and successful so far: one poll showed 60% of Gen-Z voters and 42% of millennials support Mr. Subianto.

Commenting on this makeover, his campaign manager Rosan Roeslani said in a report: “People know already Mr. Prabowo is very assertive, but we need to show the other side of Mr. Prabowo.” Spectators have described the General’s pre-2019 persona as aggressive and mercurial, prone to “uncontrollable temper”. “I do have a temper but is it terrible or not?” Mr. Subianto quipped in an interview. Now, he is mellow an innocuous defender of the poor. “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,” Mr. Subianto said in his victory speech on February 15. He wore a matching checked shirt, the same as his running mate.

Indonesia’s Defence Minister and leading Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto delivers his speech as his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka.
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Some worry there is a danger to Mr. Subianto’s revisionism of history. Because of TikTok virality, young voters may remain unaware that Mr. Subianto was linked to human rights abuses during his military career, said Endah Triastuti, a communications researcher at the University of Indonesia. Others, however, including Chatham Houses’s Ben Bland argued that the former general’s dictatorial past is unlikely to be a threat to Indonesian democracy: people’s enthusiasm “reflects their conviction that he will uphold Jokowi’s positive economic legacy” and a “faith that their democratic institutions can rein in even a strong-willed president”.

There is also a desire to judge the General based on present issues of employment and inflation rather than the sins of the past. “I think the past stays in the past…everybody at some point has an intention to reform [themselves]. And now he is different,” a 17-year-old told the Sydney Morning Herald at an election rally.

Mr. Subianto, while referring to his time as a soldier in a recent interview, said: “Maybe the perception of me was that I was tough, scary. I am not scary now, right?”  

A Prabowo presidency

Once confirmed, Mr. Subianto will be the third ruler directly elected to office since Indonesia became a democracy. His pro-youth messaging is programmed in his election promises too. Like other candidates, Mr. Subianto has pledged to expand economic initiatives, increase social security cover, create new jobs, and build the new capital city, but analysts note these promises “lack serious reform commitment”. However, observers doubt if his mercurial persona is fully stripped away. Mr. Meitzner argued that the new President will not always keep Mr. Widodo in his orbit, and it is only “inevitable” that Mr. Subianto untethers himself from the incumbent once he develops his sources of political power. “No one knows how Prabowo will govern…most who know him well emphasise his unpredictable personality. And that’s never good for governance,” said scholar Eve Warburton to BBC.

Mr. Subianto will also take charge of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economy, and will have to grapple with the U.S.-China rivalry. “Don’t let us continuously be pitted against each other by foreign nations. Don’t let us continuously be lied to…,” he said last week.

During an election rally, Mr. Subianto called for a status quo “rebalancing” where Indonesia stops looking to the West and instead learns from countries like China and India.

Indonesia’s ‘crossroads’ democracy

Indonesia is a country of cliches, one being that it is at a perennial crossroads. In a Simpsons episode, Homer Simpson is seen reading The Economist, with the cover headline reading, “Indonesia at a Crossroads”. An anxiety about if the country is moving away from its autocratic past and towards a freer future. As Mr. Subianto maintained a lead in polls, Andreas Harsono quipped: “The new cliche is that Indonesian is not at a crossroads anymore.” At his last rally, to a hysterical audience, Mr. Subianto sang the independence song Maju Tak Gentar: “Fear not, fear not / Attack, Attack/Go forward, go forward and win.”

Activists fear Mr. Subianto’s presidency may trigger a democratic backsliding. Concerns have sprung up, in the way Mr. Widodo’s government pushed a controversial law to lower the constitutional age for contesting elections, allowing his son to be Mr. Subianto’s running mate. Surveys show that 70% of Indonesians think it has become harder to express their beliefs, but they also think that they live in a robust democracy. This is “the beauty of elite manipulation of democracy in Indonesia,” remarked Mr. Meirzner. Mr. Subianto’s victory is as much about his gemoy popularity, as it is about maintaining Mr. Widodo’s political influence. With this campaign Indonesia moves towards a dynastic political regime: Mr. Widodo is the first President in Indonesia’s history to have played a Kingmaker, engineering a successor who promises political control.

In matters of succession, Mr. Subianto is the certain heir to Mr. Widodo’s legacy, but an uncertain one to Indonesia’s democracy. It is unclear which persona will rule: the nationalist General, the blazing Islamist Prabowo, or the gemoy grandfather. For now, Prabowo Subianto’s song and dance has captured Indonesia’s democratic pulse. Prabowo Subianto is Indonesia’s president, at last.

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