Gen. Prabowo’s electoral victory casts long shadow on Southeast Asia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Gen. Prabowo’s electoral victory casts long shadow on Southeast Asia Then-Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a former general of the Indonesian Army’s special forces, greets army chiefs during celebrations for the 67th anniversary of the Army’s special forces in Jakarta, April 24, 2019.
Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Prabowo Subianto has claimed a big win in Indonesia’s presidential race, garnering nearly 60% of votes in this week’s general election, as projected through “quick counts” at exit polls. 

Although the official tally won’t be announced until March, Prabowo’s wide margin of victory against fellow contenders Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, combined with his showing at regional polls across Indonesia, are enough to be confident in the results.

Because Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest country by population and GDP, elections in this young democracy matter for the development of democracy throughout the region. 

Like national polls in Myanmar in 2020, Malaysia and the Philippines in 2022, and Thailand in 2023, the administration of the Indonesian election was excellent.

Regional electoral officials have ensured the performative aspect of democracy, including the establishment of nationwide polling sites, the registration of parties and candidates, and quick ballot counts. All this has bolstered confidence in the voting process. 

In the case of Indonesia, some 5.7 million Indonesian election officials ran a smooth, violence-free election, across the archipelago made up of some 17,000 islands.

But there are some reasons for concern. 

In Malaysia and Thailand, there was a period of post-electoral instability caused by the difficulty in forming a government. In the case of the former, there was nearly a hung parliament until the Agong (the King) stepped in.

Thailand saw the biggest electoral winner, the Move Forward Party, blocked by the military-appointed Senate from being allowed to form a governing majority. And of course, in Myanmar, the National League of Democracy (NLD) was ousted in a coup d’état before they could seat Parliament, in February 2021.

In Indonesia’s case, Prabowo won convincingly in the Feb. 14 election, staving off a run-off round in June. But he will not be inaugurated until October, unless Parliament moves the date up. That means there will be an extended lame duck presidency and Prabowo – not known for his patience – will be champing at the bit. 

There is a lot of political horse-trading that will go on in Indonesia between now and October, especially as Prabowo’s coalition currently only has some 33% of the seats in the national legislature; his own Gerindra party came in third. He will try to co-opt centrist and conservative Islamic parties in his opponents’ coalitions to cobble together a working majority. 

Engineers hold posters with an image of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they hold an anti-coup protest march in Mandalay, Myanmar, Feb. 15, 2021. [AP file photo]

Prabowo’s victory also speaks to the historical amnesia in the region. 

If there is one take away, it’s not from this election, but from the 2022 Philippine presidential election. 

In that contest, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. culminated a decades-long campaign to whitewash his family’s history of dictatorship and kleptocracy. He avoided engagements with the mainstream media, but carried out effective messaging and micro-targeting on social media, and presented nostalgic family-commissioned “documentaries” and biopic films about the Marcoses to a young electorate. 

With 52% of the population under the age of 40, the majority of the population had no memory of the Marcos era, which ended in 1986. Prabowo’s campaign team followed Marcos’ playbook to a T. 

Prabowo, 72, completely rebranded himself. In 2014 and 2019, he campaigned in stadiums and appeared in uniform on a white stallion to project a martial and commanding image, as he promised a return to strongman rule. 

This time around, he campaigned as a cuddly grandfather-like figure in a hoody, with viral TikTok videos of him dancing awkwardly, and cat videos. The selection of Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the 36 year-old son of term-limited President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, conveyed a father-and-son relationship and mentoring – a far cry from Prabowo’s past as an alleged war criminal. 

The youth vote was key. 

Close to 60% of Indonesia’s electorate is under the age of 40, and has no memory of Prabowo’s time as Suharto’s high-flying son-in-law, a special forces commander in East Timor, and as a former military leader who was exiled after fomenting mass riots in Jakarta’s Chinatown in May 1998. 

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures after casting his vote during the election in Bojong Koneng, Indonesia, Feb. 14, 2024. [Vincent Thian/AP]

For a region that says they want to see new faces, Indonesia’s election was a return to the old. 

Marcos grew up at the Malacañang palace during his father’s dictatorship. 

Paetongtarn, Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter, now leads the Pheu Thai party, and the last generation of Malaysian politicians continues to dominate today’s headlines in the country. 

The NLD continues to be dominated by politicians from the 88 Generation, while Cambodia just experienced their own dynastic transition to Hun Manet and other princelings.

While Jokowi’s 2014 electoral victory ushered in post-New Order leadership, it also marked a break from Indonesia’s dynastic politics. The rise to power of Prabowo, Suharto’s former son-in-law, represents a return to both. 

Even more discomforting to many in the electorate, Gibran’s vice presidential candidacy transformed Jokowi into just another dynastic politician, a stain on the legacy of this popular president. 

In Malaysia, there was enormous concern about a “green wave” following the 2022 polls, when the conservative Muslim party PAS won the most number of parliamentary seats. 

The Perikatan Nasional coalition in the opposition has since stepped up its identity-based political discourse against the government of Anwar Ibrahim. PAS and Bersatu, the two Malaysian parties whose default mode is to play the race and religion card, are united. 

In Indonesia, the four Muslim parties have polled consistently in the past five elections, garnering an almost identical vote tally as they did in 2019, with 20.35%. But unlike Malaysia, they are not a unified voting bloc, let alone partners in the same coalition. 

Moreover, extremist attempts to spread disinformation largely failed to gain traction while the campaign itself was relatively free of polarizing religious rhetoric

Anies, who had relied on identity politics, only garnered around 22% of the vote. So while identity politics is still a vote winner in Malaysia, which has seen even Anwar’s multi-ethnic government pander to the conservative Muslim vote, it really caps out in Indonesia. 

Jokowi created a precedent for establishing a big tent by bringing in Prabowo as his Minister of Defense. So, too, could Prabowo reach out to his competitors in the spirit of national reconciliation. But Pita and Move Forward demonstrate just how effective and important it is for the functioning of democracy that there be a strong and active opposition in parliament. 

While Ganjar and Anies may be tempted to join the government, there is value in their acting as a strong opposition.

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. walk on the West Colonnade to the Oval Office following a welcome ceremony for Marcos at the White House in Washington, May 1, 2023. [Leah Millis/Pool via AP]

Obviously there is considerable concern about what a Prabowo presidency may mean for the future of Indonesia’s democracy, where press freedoms have already been set back. 

He was implicated in war crimes and thrown out of the military in connection with the abduction of pro-democracy activists, allegations which he denies. Prabowo was banned from entering the United States due to his human rights record, until he became minister of defense in 2019. In the general election earlier that year, he had threatened to unleash his supporters to overturn the results of the 2019 elections. 

As Minister of Defense, he continued to implement the Bela Negara program that saw a clawback of the military’s civil authorities, ceded in 1998-1999. His policies on internal security, especially in restive Papua, remain deeply troubling. 

While Prabowo may have authoritarian leanings, he may be curtailed by his limited popular support, high levels of public satisfaction with democracy, and limited parliamentary support.

There are many in the military who distrust him as well, due to his record, temperament, and weak management of the Ministry of Defense. The military is now seen as a guarantor of democracy, in sharp contrast to Thailand. 

Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup in February 2021, presides at an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. [Stringer/Reuters file photo]

And as Philippine analyst Richard Heydrian wrote in the Journal of Democracy, despite similar apprehensions about an illiberal democracy under Marcos, so far there have been no moves through legislation or the judicial process to chip away at democracy.

There is far more concern about democracy in Thailand where political and military elites have continued to rely on un-elected bodies as a check on electoral politics.

There should be concern about illiberal democracy emerging in Indonesia. 

For now, however, Indonesians should take satisfaction in how far they’ve come. 

Since Prabowo incited riots in Jakarta’s Glodok district in 1998, the country has held six national elections, consolidating the rule of law at each step. And that matters for the region.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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