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Prabowo aims for a hole in one in this week’s Indonesian elections

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Indonesia's Defence Minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures during his campaign rally at the Gelora Delta Stadium in Sidoarjo, East Java province, Indonesia, 9 February 2024 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Dhemas Reviyanto).

In Brief

In the upcoming Indonesian presidential elections, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of current President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), are expected to win by a small margin, potentially avoiding a late June runoff. With this lead in the polls, there are concerns that if Prabowo wins with a large margin and his party, Gerindra, becomes the leading party in the legislative elections, he could become overly powerful, potentially sidelining the Widodos and shifting his political persona and alliances as he has done throughout his political career.


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As Indonesians prepare to cast votes for a new president on 14 February, the question isn’t whether Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto will win, but how.

Prabowo and his running mate, President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, need to get above 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a late June runoff with the second-placed candidate. Opinion polls put them just above this threshold, or tantalisingly close to it.

Jokowi hopes to extend his dynastic foothold in the system by supporting the Indonesia Solidarity Party (PSI), which is trying to enter parliament for the first time under the leadership of his second son Kaesang Pangarep. PSI’s ubiquitous television adverts feature Kaesang’s image alongside that of his father, with the slogan that ‘PSI is Jokowi’s party’.

This is no doubt news to Indonesia’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which for now still counts Jokowi as a member. But a breakdown in president–party relations in 2023 accelerated Jokowi’s shift of his support to Prabowo, capped with the appointment of Gibran as his running mate. PDI-P’s candidate, former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, has seen his support collapse over the three-month campaign period as Jokowi’s supporter base have followed their president’s lead and defected from him to Prabowo.

The irony is that Jokowi’s betrayal of PDI-P in favour of Prabowo and his son’s candidacy has worked almost too well for the president’s own good. Ganjar has been overtaken for second place by former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, a government critic who maintains ties to conservative Islamic opposition groups, and who is now attracting support from progressives who see him as the candidate best placed to challenge the Prabowo–Widodo alliance. But polls show Prabowo with a huge lead in a head-to-head with Anies, and PDI-P, despite its anger with Jokowi, would likely endorse Prabowo in a second round in exchange for an advantageous deal on representation in Prabowo’s cabinet.

Jokowi is nonetheless understandably not eager to see a four-month runoff campaign that would offer Anies a platform to dial up criticisms of his policy legacy and his government’s erosion of democratic norms. Efforts by Jokowi to use the levers of state to drum up support for Prabowo have become a major point of controversy in the media. Both Ganjar’s and Anies’ campaigns have alleged behind-the-scenes intimidation of voters, donors and campaign workers by police and other officials.

A more above board mode of government favouritism is occurring in plain sight. During the campaign Jokowi has wheeled out close to US$1.3 billion worth of cash transfers and food aid, justified as an emergency response to El Nino-related disruptions to food security. Nobody sees it as anything other than a well-timed attempt to boost goodwill towards the administration — and by extension, to Prabowo and Gibran.

Jokowi wants to reduce the risk of an unexpectedly tight runoff to zero, but a hole-in-one for Prabowo isn’t without its downsides if Prabowo enters office with too forceful an electoral mandate behind him. No non-incumbent president has ever won a multi-cornered contest without a runoff since the introduction of direct presidential elections in 2004.

Prabowo is a strong chance to not only score an unprecedented first-round victory, but his personal-vehicle party, Gerindra, could beat PDI-P for first place in the legislative elections, too — allowing it by custom to claim the strategic speakership of parliament. If all breaks well on election day, Prabowo could become the most authoritative incoming president in the democratic era.

For Jokowi, such a landslide would only accelerate the point at which Prabowo no longer owes him anything. One son in the vice presidency and the other as the head of a minor parliamentary faction would offer Jokowi only limited avenues to push back against any effort by Prabowo to sideline the Widodos in the course of asserting his authority over the political elite.

There remains uncertainty over the ends to which that might then be put. Prabowo’s 2024 campaign has been premised on promising continuity with the Jokowi era. His television advertisements and campaign speeches have featured Gibran prominently, listing off the hugely popular social programs that have been built out by the Jokowi administration and promising to continue and expand them.

Yet the hallmark of Prabowo’s political career has been shifts in his political persona and alliances to serve his presidential ambitions. In 1997–98 he posed as a bitter-ender for former president Suharto’s foundering dictatorship, forging links with a rising Islamist civil society as part of his manoeuvring to succeed his then father-in-law. In the post-reformasi era he reinvented himself as a Sukarnoist ultranationalist, then later posed as a friend of political Islam in his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns against Jokowi.

More than 20 years of trial and error has now led Prabowo to mimicry of Jokowi’s secular, technocratic populism, with very successful results. But nobody — including Jokowi — can assume that this persona will hold fast if, or when, he has the powers of the overbearing presidency Jokowi has created at his fingertips, with the added bonus of a strong electoral mandate Jokowi helped him earn.

Prabowo has lately become proud of talking about how much he has learnt from Jokowi while serving as his defence minister since 2019 — and as PDI-P knows all too well, nobody but Jokowi is a better teacher of the art of the double-cross.

Liam Gammon is Research Fellow at the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research, and a member of the East Asia Forum editorial board.

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