Indonesia’s New President Is Dangerously Authoritarian

Indonesia’s new president, Prabowo, has a gruesome track record of human rights violations and hostility to democracy. But a slick campaign successfully presented him as a cuddly grandpa figure, with crucial assistance from outgoing president Jokowi.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo riding a horse while attending a campaign in Jakarta on March 23, 2014. (Adek Berry / AFP via Getty Images)

After a decade-spanning quest for power, Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, generally known simply as Prabowo, has finally taken Indonesia’s presidency. The world should be deeply concerned.

While his social media team presents him as a cuddly, cat-loving grandpa — gemoy in Indonesian slang — the resume of this self-described fascist includes coup attempts, ties to the criminal underworld, and numerous accusations of human rights violations ranging from kidnapping to genocide. During his twenty-eight-year career in the Indonesian Army (TNI), Prabowo earned a reputation for extrajudicial violence, eventually leading to a dishonorable discharge.

As Robert S. Gelbard, a former US ambassador to Indonesia, once remarked: “Prabowo certainly is somebody who is perhaps the greatest violator of human rights in contemporary times among the Indonesian military. His deeds in the late ’90s before democracy took hold were shocking, even by TNI standards.”

Profiling Prabowo

Prabowo was born into a well-connected family in 1951. When his father came into conflict with Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, over the government’s economic policies, the family went into political exile, and he was raised and educated in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The family returned in the early years of the New Order dictatorship (1966–98), shortly after the infamous anti-communist bloodbath that cemented Suharto’s grip on power.

Prabowo’s father worked as an economic minister for Suharto’s regime, and he enrolled in the Indonesian Military Academy in 1970. While he could have used his connections to secure a desk job, for decades Prabowo sought out dangerous battlefield missions. As a young officer, he led a Special Forces (Kopassus) commando unit in the brutal occupation of East Timor.

In one high-profile operation, Lieutenant Prabowo hunted down Nicolau dos Reis Lobato, the first Timorese prime minister, who was killed in an ambush in 1978. Lobato’s remains are still missing. Some reports suggest that he was beheaded and his skull taken to Java. The wider fate of the Lobato family encapsulates the horrors inflicted on the Timorese people: Indonesian forces raped and murdered his wife and seized their infant son, raising him in Jakarta.

Kopassus is accused of countless war crimes, contributing to the death of up to a third of the Timorese population between 1975 and 1999. Prabowo’s team of “Ninjas,” irregular troops who dressed in black and operated at night, terrorized the population. Prabowo also directed Kopassus actions against Papuan independence fighters, including a ruse in which he disguised an attack helicopter as being from the Red Cross.

In the 1980s, Prabowo received training in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, becoming a US intelligence asset. In 1983, he married Suharto’s daughter, which brought him fully into the inner circles of power.

However, his career was derailed in 1998. As the Suharto regime crumbled in the face of mass protests, Prabowo was accused of organizing the kidnapping, torture, and murder of democracy activists.

When Suharto resigned in May 1998, Prabowo quarreled with his commanding officers and the new president. In August, he was dishonorably discharged and went into a brief exile in Jordan. He claimed that he had been scapegoated for the regime’s crimes. In 1998, he also divorced Suharto’s daughter and never remarried.

After Suharto

After this disgrace, Prabowo developed the Nusantara Group, a collection of twenty-seven companies with interests in oil, coal, and natural gas, palm oil plantations, the fishing industry, and other sectors. Having failed to win the support of Suharto’s Golkar party, he founded Gerindra, the Great Indonesia Party. Gerindra espouses right-wing, populist nationalism and has ties to Donald Trump.

In 2009, Prabowo was the vice-presidential candidate on the failed ticket of Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country’s first president. In the next two elections, he ran for the presidency himself and lost in the second round to Joko Widodo (Jokowi). In the 2014 election, Prabowo rode into rallies on horseback and ran an advertisement with Nazi imagery set to a heavy metal soundtrack.

After his defeat, he supported a populist Islamist protest movement against one of Jokowi’s allies and may have been involved in coup plots. Jokowi’s administration considered bringing human rights charges against the troublesome Prabowo. In the 2019 election, Prabowo allied with Islamist groups amid absurd rumors that Jokowi was a secret communist agent. Refusing to accept his electoral defeat, he orchestrated deadly riots in central Jakarta.

As the smoke and tear gas cleared from the riots, Jokowi started his second term with a series of concessions to his right-wing rivals. Once seen as a great reformer, Jokowi defanged the anti-corruption agency and backtracked on labor and civil rights while centralizing power around the presidency. In a Machiavellian move, he even appointed Prabowo as minister of defense.

A year ago, as the lineup of candidates for the 2024 election took shape, few analysts would have put money on Prabowo. His failed presidential runs in 2014 and 2019 seemingly indicated that the septuagenarian’s time was up.

Early polls had him last in the three-way race with Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan. As Ganjar represented the PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), the same party as President Jokowi, he could ride the coattails of Jokowi’s popular administration. Anies, who had mobilized Islamic identity politics in his campaign for governor of Jakarta, also seemed to be a rising star.

In March 2023, there was a surprising misstep from Ganjar on the campaign trail. Under orders from PDI-P chief Megawati Sukarnoputri, Ganjar joined the opposition to Israel’s participation in the under twenty FIFA World Cup, which was due to be held in Indonesia. An indignant FIFA moved the tournament to Argentina, costing Indonesia several hundred million dollars in revenue. Ganjar’s move angered soccer fans and his popularity plunged.

By the summer of last year, Prabowo and Ganjar were both polling around 35 percent, with both well short of the absolute majority needed to win election on the first round. Many assumed that voters who supported Anies the first time around would support Ganjar in a runoff.

Jokowi’s Gambit

However, the FIFA scandal had also angered the president. With an 80 percent approval rating, Jokowi knew he could play the role of kingmaker and even mused on violating the constitution by running for a third term. Although they were in the same party, Jokowi and Megawati had long had a tense and transactional relationship. Frustrated with the national embarrassment, Jokowi soured on Ganjar and the PDI-P.

Jokowi was not fond of Anies. In his rise to power, Anies used Islamic identity politics and Sinophobia to attack his political rival Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Jokowi protégé, who was known as Ahok. A campaign of massive rallies that paralyzed the capital resulted in Anies winning the governorship of Jakarta, while Ahok was jailed on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

In June of last year, the president quipped that he would “meddle” in the election, using the Javanese term “cawe-cawe.” By the end of August, it was clear that Jokowi was favoring Prabowo, his former rival. The depth of that support broke Indonesian political norms and may also have violated the law.

One prominent critic of Jokowi’s intervention was ex-president and retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Having served two terms from 2004 to 2014, SBY urged his successor to follow his path of neutrality and a peaceful transfer of power. As SBY was a proponent of the army’s return to the barracks after Suharto’s New Order, his voice carries weight.

The campaign drama increased in October. Seeking to tap into some of Jokowi’s popularity, Prabowo announced that Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the president’s eldest son, would be his vice-presidential running mate. Although he faced criticism on social media as an inexperienced “nepo baby,” the restaurant entrepreneur with no political experience had recently been elected mayor of Surakarta — the first political office his father held.

Opponents noted that Gibran was thirty-six while the minimum age requirement for the post is supposed to be forty. The matter went to the Constitutional Court, where Chief Justice Anwar Usman ruled that because Gibran had been elected as mayor, he was qualified for the vice presidency despite his age. This curious logic and the fact that the judge was Jokowi’s brother-in-law led to public outcry.

The ethics council of the Constitutional Court later removed Anwar from his post and barred him from weighing in on election disputes for what it deemed a “serious ethical violation.” However, his nephew was still allowed to run for office. The Prabowo-Gibran ticket steadily surged in the polls.

In early February, another ethics council sanctioned the General Elections Commission (KPU) for having allowed Gibran to run. This move came just a week before Prabowo and Gibran won by a landslide. By securing almost 60 percent of the vote in the three-way race, they ensured there would be no second round in June.

Prabowo’s Makeover

It seems clear that the voting process itself was fair. Scores of international observers were impressed by the transparency of what is the world’s largest single-day election. Eric Jones, an American legal historian who served as an election observer, detailed how it would be difficult, if not impossible, to engage in significant vote tampering. As Jones told me:

The low-tech vote is such an asset. It is impossible to rig. Literally eight oppositional interests are looking and counting every vote. In every precinct, they double check KPU reported tallies and any inconsistency raises immediate flags from watchdogs.

The veteran journalist Allan Nairn, a survivor of the 1992 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, offered a different perspective on the circumstances under which the vote was held. Nairn points to reports of widespread intimidation in the lead-up to the election, including threats of withholding government-subsidized rice and cooking oil. There were also stories of the police and the military pressuring academics and campaigners who called attention to Jokowi’s electoral misconduct.

There is scant evidence of direct tampering with the vote on election day. Yet there is no doubt that excessive, if not illegal, pork-barrel politics and state intimidation influenced the climate in which individual Indonesians cast their votes. Prabowo’s defeated rivals have argued that such practices made the election unfair and are calling for investigations. However, it is unlikely that this alone would have been enough to deliver almost 60 percent of the vote for Prabowo.

Above all, Prabowo’s victory was due to a brilliant campaign. While the importance of Jokowi’s support, with his son as a running mate, cannot be discounted, it was the transformation of the onetime strongman into a cuddly grandpa figure that won the election.

Young Indonesians received a picture of a reinvented Prabowo on social media, starting with an Instagram post of the former general in a white hoodie with a gentle smile, contrasting with previous images of him looking stern on horseback. His staff put out friendly cartoon caricatures of a general who has been accused of assassinations, torture, and massacres in East Timor, Papua, and Aceh as well as kidnapping democracy activists, organizing deadly riots, and plotting coups in Jakarta.

While this makeover may seem trite, it appealed to voters under the age of forty, who account for 56.6 percent of the total electorate — well over a hundred million people in total. This crucial demographic has no memories of Suharto’s New Order dictatorship. Nor do they remember the fiery-tempered general with a human rights record so problematic that the United States denied him entry for decades. Few paid attention to the fact that Prabowo was the only candidate not to complete a questionnaire from Human Rights Watch.

Indonesia is one of the societies with the highest social media usage in the world. Prabowo’s gemoy cartoon campaign strategy and appearances with his youthful running mate, where he did silly old man dances to pulsating music, won the hearts and minds of the Indonesian youth vote.

It also helped that the campaign focused on questions of economic development. While the national debates were lackluster affairs, with all candidates agreeing that the economy should continue to grow, Prabowo came off as the heir to Jokowi’s successful track record in this field.

Finally, Prabowo distanced himself from his earlier Islamist allies. Realizing that Islamic identity politics were not a path to national electoral success, he left them to Anies.

Between Democracy and Dictatorship

What will Prabowo’s administration bring? A radical authoritarian turn comparable to Suharto’s 1966 takeover is unlikely. However, the last few years of Jokowi’s rule already saw power increasingly centralized in the hands of the president.

This process will likely be accelerated, with human rights activists, labor organizers, and environmentalists the most at risk, along with the population of Indonesian-occupied West Papua. In view of Prabowo’s developmentalist rhetoric and extensive ties to the mining and plantation industries, we can also expect more damage to Indonesia’s imperiled ecosystems.

One great uncertainty is the future of Jokowi’s gambit. Will giving his firstborn son to his onetime rival allow him to build a political dynasty? Or will the man on horseback take off the gemoy mask, assert his control, and marginalize the young Gibran?

Prabowo has spoken of returning to a more authoritarian earlier draft of Indonesia’s constitution. He has also openly mused about ruling as a “fascist” in the past. Even if he does not act on these ideas in the short term, democracy may still be imperiled over the course of his reign.

Max Lane described Indonesia as the country with no left, which unfortunately remains the case today. In the absence of a progressive opposition, Islamist groups frustrated by the defeat of Anies may pose the most serious challenge to the Prabowo regime.