The world gets another unpredictable new leader

Although the archipelago has always maintained an independent foreign policy, Prabowo will need to tread carefully — and that’s not something he’s good at.
Last Updated 15 February 2024, 03:20 IST

By Karishma Vaswani

In a closely watched contest, the unofficial quick count results are now out and strongly suggest a landslide victory for the man who is poised to be Indonesia’s next president: former fiery special forces commander Prabowo Subianto, who was also, for a time, the son-in-law of the archipelago’s ex-dictator Suharto.

No doubt there will be much hand-wringing and headshaking over what went wrong for the other two candidates, former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan.

They have said they want to wait for the official results before conceding defeat, even though Prabowo has declared victory. Still, the unofficial results have historically been very accurate, and it is likely that come October when the current president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, steps down, it will be Prabowo who will replace him.

It is crucial for him to start thinking about the challenges ahead, both on the domestic front, but also, importantly, on the international stage. The 72-year-old defense minister is inheriting Indonesia at a time of complex geopolitical issues. Gaza and Israel, the US and China, an assertive Russia, and an unpredictable North Korea. Although the archipelago has always maintained an independent foreign policy, Prabowo will need to tread carefully — and that’s not something he’s good at.

He has remade his image as a cute and cuddly grandpa from the once forceful general, but some of that temper was evident on the campaign trail. In 2019, when he last contested the election, he told an unsuspecting foreign correspondent that he was “not somebody who is afraid of white people,” and that he wasn’t going to be lectured on democracy.

None of that vitriol or fury was apparent at his victory parade in central Jakarta on Wednesday. Beaming as he entered the packed Istora Senayan sports complex, it was obvious this historical moment wasn’t lost on the man who tried to be Indonesia’s president several times before. His supporters had started gathering hours before in anticipation of a victory, and as he addressed them they broke out in applause and cheers, dancing to the now popular tune OKE Gas that has accompanied his campaign. He talked in his speech about the importance of being a president for all Indonesians, and bringing the nation together after months of intense divisions. Many of the people I spoke to at the event were thrilled that Prabowo was set to be their next president. “He is a strong man,” one woman to me. “He will make Indonesia strong again.”

It is a remarkable image makeover for a man with a checkered history. He was accused of the abduction and disappearance of student activists during the pro-democracy protests that eventually led to Suharto’s resignation in 1998, amid street protests fueled by economic turmoil. Prabowo also headed the army’s special forces unit, Kopassus, and was incriminated in alleged human-rights violations in the former province of East Timor. He has consistently denied all allegations, and in this campaign, has appeared to shake off the past. We must focus on the future, he thundered to the crowd at his victory parade. It seems millions of Indonesians agree with him.

Central to that is a sense of pride and nationalism and a desire to have their place in the world. Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council of Foreign Relations notes: “Prabowo definitely wants Indonesia to be seen as a bigger power in Asia and on the world stage — to take back real leadership of ASEAN, play a bigger role in global institutions.”

And it will be on the international front that he may face the biggest challenges. The first order of business will be the relationship with the US — which has been awkward to say the least. He was banned from going there for two decades, ostensibly because of his alleged human-rights record, but Washington allowed him back in after he was selected defense minister in Jokowi’s cabinet. Indonesia under Jokowi has been building close ties with both the US and China, and for the most part, Prabowo is expected to continue with that, particularly in terms of courting Chinese investment, which has been a strong feature of this administration.

The superpowers’ jostle for influence will no doubt be a key theme of Indonesia’s future. The country, which is the largest economy in Southeast Asia, should, in theory, be a natural partner for Washington. It is a large, vibrant democracy with historically strong military ties to the US. Its economic prospects are relatively strong, and the archipelago no longer needs to kowtow to either Beijing or Washington to ensure its relevance.

Which is why Prabowo’s relationship with the US will be closely monitored by other regional partners, especially in an election year for both countries. It looks increasingly likely that Donald Trump could well be back in the White House. Asian governments are beginning to calculate what a Trump presidency might mean for them, and Jakarta should do the same. The combination of a Prabowo-Trump duo could be explosive. The two men, in some ways have some striking similarities. In 2019, after losing to Jokowi, Prabowo refused to concede defeat, saying instead that he had won the election. Oftentimes, Prabowo has echoed the American politician’s campaign slogans, saying it was time to “make Indonesia great again.”

Like Trump, Prabowo is an unpredictable leader. He has yet to display Jokowi’s ability for compromise and political maneuvering. But Prabowo will no doubt have his predecessor in the background, if not by his side. His vice president, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is the current president’s eldest son, and Jokowi’s image has been plastered on Prabowo-Gibran posters. Indonesians voted for two politicians on their ballots on Wednesday to lead them into the future: In reality, they’re getting three.

(Published 15 February 2024, 03:20 IST)

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