Suharto deepfake in Indonesia election campaign brings democracy back to the future

Fake Suharto continues: “Since I assumed office, my dream was to build an advanced and prosperous Indonesia. The dream was materialised through infrastructure development such as highways and dams by the great Indonesian engineers.

“President Jokowi [Widodo] and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have continued these important works. It proves that our dreams never die, they continue to live from generation to generation.”

The fake Suharto goes on to say he dreamt about Indonesia as a nation where children studied to be leaders in a technological world and in which food prices were stable and affordable and no one starved.

The man behind the back-to-the-future election tactic is businessman Erwin Aksa, a nephew of former vice-president Jusuf Kalla and a deputy chief in the campaign team of presidential frontrunner Prabowo Subianto, the ex-special forces commando who was once Suharto’s son-in-law.

Golkar does not have its own presidential candidate but has declared it support for Subianto and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka – Widodo’s 36-year-old son – while aiming to secure 20 per cent of places in Indonesian parliament.


The ruling political party during most of Suharto’s 32-year stranglehold on the country, Golkar distanced itself from its long-time figurehead after the collapse of his New Order in 1998, but has since re-embraced his authoritarian legacy.

“Personally, as a Golkar member, I am very proud of [Suharto] because he successfully developed Indonesia,” said Aksa, who explained in an introduction to the social media creation that it was made using AI.

“He produced a lot of successes. We must respect it, we must appreciate, we must remember his services. And Golkar was there.”

Evoking memories of former leaders is not new in Indonesian politics. The leading group in parliament, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, has often promoted itself using the image of the country’s first president, Sukarno.

But the Suharto regime was marked by brutality, repression and cronyism. While he oversaw rapid development, Suharto was forced to resign after a spectacular economic collapse during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and a popular uprising known as Reformasi which led to wide-ranging democratic reform.

Golkar was the dominant political party during Suharto’s New Order regime. Here supporters attend a rally in Bali in 2004.Credit: AP

Titi Anggraini is a member of the advisory team at Perludem, an Indonesian NGO that provides education and training on elections and democracy. She described the Suharto deepfake as “propaganda for practical electoral interests”.

“It will be a different case if the AI quoted the actual words uttered by the previous leader … [but] it contains manipulation, it is not correct information,” Anggraini said.

“It could backfire for Golkar because for the anti-New Order groups or for the pro-reform groups, the Suharto AI strengthens the understanding that Golkar is the New Order party.

“However, it can also serve to bend history. This is especially so for young voters who are 17 to 23 years of age, those who are not exposed to the Reformasi struggles.”

Presidential election frontrunner Prabowo Subianto (right) and his vice-presidential running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka. Subianto was an army general under former president Suharto’s military-backed regime.Credit: AP

Younger Indonesians are key to the election in 2024. About half of those eligible to vote are under the age of 40.

Shadowed by allegations of Suharto-era human rights abuses, 72-year-old Subianto has made a clear effort to appeal to that generation in the presidential race, recasting himself as an amiable dad dancer and mostly parking the explosive rhetoric of his previous unsuccessful runs.

While the engineered deepfake Suharto messaging is not an official Golkar production, it is only likely to reinforce the views of older Indonesians who still revere him, according to executive director of the Indonesia Survey Institute Djayadi Hanan.


“I think he still has many followers. But Suharto loyalists, whether within Golkar or among Indonesian voters in general, are the people born in the 1950s, 1960s and those born in early 1970s,” he said.

“I think the use of Suharto AI will consolidate [the opinions of] some Golkar voters with nostalgic memories about Suharto’s good old times. But they are not big in numbers.

“At the same time, it wakes up the public’s negativity against Suharto, especially for the generation who were born in the mid-1970s and since then. The people who grew up during the Reformasi era … [they] tend to be negative about Suharto.”

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