Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s defense minister and two-time presidential contender, is the frontrunner for national election polls scheduled for February 2024. A longtime figure in Indonesian politics, the former special forces commander and ex-son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto has long been known for his checkered past, authoritarian impulses, and populist outbursts. So infamous was his reputation that he was banned from entering the United States in 2000.
Yet, as analysts inside and out of Indonesia have noted, Prabowo has been working hard to “refashion” his domestic and international image – particularly after losing two consecutive presidential elections to current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2014 and 2019, and his subsequent appointment to lead the Ministry of Defense in 2019.
How should we read Prabowo’s apparent transformation, from authoritarian and populist pariah to affable party elder and staunch defender of policy continuity? Understanding this political transformation, with all its complexities and caveats, is crucial to comprehending Indonesia’s most probable future trajectory.
Prabowo the Populist
For much of Prabowo’s time on the political stage, and particularly throughout his 2014 and 2019 presidential campaigns, scholars and policy analysts alike have described him as a “populist” with authoritarian tendencies. He has long relied on divisive rhetoric – separating society into two groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” – in order to mobilize his supporters. For much of Prabowo’s political career, this entailed dividing Indonesian society into “elites,” usually characterized as wealthy ethnic Chinese who support foreign powers in “looting” Indonesia, and “victims,” i.e., the average Indonesian. In 1998, long before running for political office, Prabowo met with Muslim intellectuals and clerics and distributed data on “the economic dominance” of Chinese-Indonesians in Indonesia.
The weaponization of this division was on full display throughout the 2019 elections, when Prabowo spread unfounded rumors that Jokowi was secretly a “Chinese Christian” who was selling his country out to China. And it didn’t help that Prabowo had long existing ties with the Islamic Defenders’ Front and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, hardline conservative Islamist groups that spearheaded massive protests against ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, in 2016.
Prabowo also frequently claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that politics should reflect volonté générale, or the “will of the people,” with the corollary that this can only be achieved through centralized strongman rule. His campaigns in 2014 and 2019 heavily favored large public rallies, during which he would refer to his audience as brothers (saudara). He frequently evoked notions of the people’s economy (ekonomi kerakyatan) and described liberalization policies pursued in the aftermath of the 1998 reformasi movement as an “economic war” waged against the Indonesian people. And after losing to Jokowi in the 2019 election, he accused the government of electoral fraud, elevating the notion of a conspiracy against his supporters and the “Indonesian people” more broadly. Backing this rhetoric were claims that he is the only leader capable of fixing Indonesia’s many problems, such as in 2019, when he regularly lamented that Indonesia would be “at risk of extinction” if he lost the election.
Prabowo the Institutionalist
The Prabowo of late, however, has been described as a different kind of politician. He shed his image as a “modern-day warrior” (pendekar) and positioned himself as a “patriot ready to serve his people” (pengabdi) and a “keen student and follower” of Jokowi’s leadership style. He has traded his usually divisive rhetoric and behavior for more inclusive and forgiving messaging. Rather than dismiss his political rivals as immoral or corrupt, he has instead heaped effusive praise and made highly-publicized and choreographed “political courtesy visits” (silaturahmi politik).
For example, when the National Awakening Party withdrew from his coalition in September of this year, he called its leaders his brothers and did not accuse them of disloyalty. Prabowo earlier this year visited Gen. Wiranto, who famously fired him from the military in 1998 and is now part of a rival political coalition, and called him his “boss.” And while Prabowo’s previous campaigns relied on subtly signaling support to radical Islamist groups, his current campaign has seen him reach out to moderate Muslim voters and leaders.
Prabowo’s efforts to soften his image have improved his reputation among the Indonesian public, diverse members of the Indonesian political elite and civil society, and international policymakers. Besides meeting with then-defense secretary Mark Esper in 2020, ending his nearly two-decade ban from the United States, and meeting with current-defense secretary Lloyd Austin in September this year, he recently received the endorsement of Budiman Sudjatmiko, a Suharto-era student activist and former cadre of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). And according to polls conducted in May this year, he has the tentative support of 32.7 percent of youth voters (between ages 17-26), well ahead of the next candidate, the PDI-P’s Ganjar Pranowo, at 24.5 percent.
In explaining Prabowo’s shift in strategy and style, commentators inside and out of Southeast Asia have offered two perspectives. The first gives Prabowo full agency: he has determined that the tactics of his previous campaign – demonizing fellow political elites and tenuously working with radical Islamist groups – could never win him a national election.
The second starts by acknowledging Jokowi’s continued popularity among the Indonesian people, and the constraints it has placed on national politicians. Prabowo has thus looked to Jokowi’s style of politics, one that seeks to build as wide a coalition as possible, and sought to emulate it. Another factor that is frequently ignored is the effect that Jokowi’s “cooptation” of Prabowo into his cabinet has had on the psychology, political strategy, and incentives of the formerly populist politician.
Indeed, since becoming the defense minister in 2019, alongside his party Gerindra joining Jokowi’s parliamentary coalition, Prabowo has integrated himself into “establishment” patronage networks that would likely be costly to break free from. These patronage networks, centered around the president and involving other parties, have made Gerindra and Prabowo more accountable and financially reliant upon fellow elites, ultimately making populist rhetoric awkward to deploy.
Ultimately, the tentative integration of Prabowo’s political networks with those of other political elites in Indonesia provides some cautious optimism about the permanence of Prabowo’s political transformation – one that aligns with U.S. interests and democratic values. But several factors still warrant skepticism. First, while Prabowo has ditched his usual divisive rhetoric, he has clung onto “people-centered” rhetoric that may still serve as a catalyst for democratic backsliding.
This is not unlike the so-called “technocratic populism” that has been ascribed to Jokowi: an ideology and strategy to “gauge and articulate” what the “people” want, in the face of elite corruption and political gridlock. Still, this technocratic populism can lead to the erosion of democratic norms, such as when Jokowi, seeking to extend his political legacy and ensure policy continuity, pushed for constitutional changes that permitted his eldest son to run as Prabowo’s running mate. With Indonesia’s government and parties often either in flux or gridlocked, this populism may just as easily slide into authoritarianism.
Moreover, the other constraints listed above are linked to Prabowo’s electoral calculations: he has restrained himself because he would like to win, not because of any discernible change in principles. He has ditched his exclusionary, quasi-Islamist form of populism because it did not favor him in previous elections; he has emulated Jokowi because he believes that is the winning formula. But what happens after he is elected to office? What happens if Jokowi’s popularity starts to decline among voters and elites, as might be happening after the Gibran affair? In the end, U.S. observers and government officials should be cautiously optimistic about apparent changes in Prabowo’s behavior, but should not be blind to the risks that supporting or engaging with a potential Prabowo regime may entail.
This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.