Indonesia: A Curious Outcome

14 February 2024

Indonesia: A Curious Outcome

By Gwynne Dyer

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo concluded his second five-year term on Tuesday with a national election in which his chosen successors won a convincing victory. ‘Jokowi’, as everybody calls him, still enjoys 70% public approval and he has every right to be proud of his past.

The national economy has grown 43% under his rule, and democracy has become normal in a country where dictatorship was once the norm. People are living better, the coups, massacres and genocides are long past, and Indonesia is growing into its status as a major player internationally (4th in population, 16th in economy).

But something weird has just happened. Prabowo Subianto has been elected president.

Former general Prabowo Subianto is a living symbol of the bad old days. His father came from a wealthy family and served as a cabinet minister under both Indonesia’s founding dictator, Sukarno, and the brutal general who ruled for thirty years after him, Suharto.

Prabowo married Suharto’s daughter in 1983, and served as a special forces commander fighting resistance fighters in Indonesian-occupied East Timor and separatists in West Irian (New Guinea). In both conflicts he was accused of human rights abuses.

The accusations that just won’t go away, however, concern the kidnapping, torture and murder of pro-democracy protesters during the non-violent campaign to oust Suharto in 1998. “It was my superiors who told me what to do,” Prabowo insisted in his first presidential debate ten years ago, but that is not much of a defence in law.

Prabowo was also accused of inciting the anti-Chinese pogroms that swept Jakarta in the last days of Suharto’s rule in 1998. He was dishonorably discharged from the military and the United States banned him from entering because of human rights violations. (The ban was only lifted by Donald Trump in 2020.)

But he returned from exile in 2009 and founded a right-wing ultra-nationalist party. With limitless funds available from his billionaire brother Hashim Djojohadikusomo he ran for president in 2014 and 2019, but even with the backing of the other business tycoons who control the Indonesian media he was trounced by Jokowi both times.

In those days Prabowo’s political style was somewhere between Juan Peron and Benito Mussolini, belligerently anti-foreign and over-the-top dramatic: he sometimes arrived at rallies riding on a thoroughbred horse. But he’s getting better political advice these days, and prefers to play a benevolent grandfather dancing badly on TikTok.

That change of face wouldn’t have been enough to win him the presidency, however, without the help of Jokowi himself, who brought Prabowo in from the cold and made him defence minister in 2019. This greatly puzzled people who admired Jokowi, but gradually the plot became clear.

Nepotism has always been a curse in Indonesian politics, and it turns out that Jokowi was not immune. Maybe he justified his actions by telling himself that otherwise somebody like Prabowo would ruin his legacy after he was gone (the constitution says two terms is the limit), but in any case he made a secret deal with his erstwhile rival.

Obviously nobody is going to admit that publicly, but actions speak louder than words. Making Prabowo minister of defence was just the first step. The deal was that Prabowo would make Jokowi’s eldest son Gibran Rakabuming his running mate as vice-president in the 2024 election in return for Jokowi’s support.

It worked: Indonesian voters were left with limited choices once the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ had made a deal. However, the vice-presidency may be worth no more than “a bucket of warm spit”, as former US vice-president John Nance Garner once warned fellow Texan and prospective vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson (and he didn’t really say ‘spit’).

There’s a coalition of parties behind this deal, of course, but it’s hard to believe that Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, a political novice, will be a match for the ruthless Prabowo, a 72-year-old veteran of both the political wars and the real killing zones of the past.

But then, Jokowi himself was a bit of an amateur. He was the son of a wood-seller and made his pile as an exporter of wooden furniture before being elected mayor of his native city of Surakarta in central Java in 2005. His simple lifestyle, his hands-on approach to the city’s problems, and his sheer incorruptibility won him a national reputation.

He easily won election as governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s huge, dysfunctional capital city, in 2012, and from there to president took only another two years. His simplicity was his strength but the learning curve was steep, and he may have missed a few lessons on the way to the top.

The current deal is unlikely to work, and Jokowi’s ability to control the course of the new government (through his son Gibran) will be a lot less than he supposes.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 15 and 16. (“But then…the top”)