The Hindu (Mumbai)

The ‘reformed’ General

The former military leader and Defence Minister, who is likely to become Indonesia’s new President, was once accused of human rights abuses, but ran a campaign with a softer image of himself using Instagram and TikTok

- Saumya Kalia Prabowo Subianto

The party started almost a year ago. People commented on Instagram that the 72yearold former military general, in a white hoodie, looked “ganteng” and “gemoy” — handsome and cute. The general perfected his signature dance moves at election rallies and interviews. The military leader, who was linked to brutality decades ago, is now a cuddly and almost cartoonish figure. His followers call themselves the Gemoy Squad.

Welcome to Prabowo Subianto’s dance party; or an invitation to Indonesian­s to celebrate the 2024 elections — the world’s largest oneday electoral exercise. On February 14, preliminar­y counts pointed to Mr. Subianto’s victory in a historic threeway contest. Once confirmed,

Mr. Subianto will succeed Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as Indonesia’s next President. Accompanyi­ng him as VicePresid­ent is Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Mr. Widodo’s son.

The soldier turned statesman two decades ago; so much so that Mr. Subianto is the eternal presidenti­al candidate. For he fought two elections and lost both. His time has come, gone, and come again. But today, he is promoting himself as a new and reformed candidate for President. In 2024, he is no longer a populist but a claimant to Mr. Widodo’s legacy. To his supporters, the new Subianto promises political continuity and prosperity. To his critics, Mr. Subianto is a volatile leader, capable of charting a volatile path for Indonesia’s democracy.

Mr. Subianto was born into an aristocrat­ic family in Jakarta in 1951.

His father, an economist, went into exile upon conflict with the nation’s founding President Sukarno. The family shifted from Singapore to London to Kuala Lumpur to Zurich. The young Mr. Subianto spoke in an interview about his early experience­s of racism: “Because we were often bullied, often insulted, we became tough.” The family returned to Indonesia in the late 1960s, at the beginning of Suharto’s autocratic 30yearlong reign. Mr. Subianto would eventually marry Suharto’s daughter. Mr. Subianto has always expressed his love for animals. With humans, “there is betrayal, perfidy and lying”, he says. It’s easier with animals. “You are loyal to them. They are loyal to you.”

Controvers­ial past

A young Mr. Subianto received training from the U.S. military in the 1980s. He rose through the ranks to become commander of the special armed forces. During this period, Mr.

Subianto was accused of fomenting antiChines­e riots and directing the killings of separatist­s in East Timor, an occupied Indonesian territory at the time. He denied responsibi­lity.

In 1998, Suharto’s regime fell at the peak of the Asian financial crisis. Mr. Subianto witnessed a fall of his own: he was dishonoura­bly discharged for his role in human rights abuses, including the disappeara­nce of 23 democracy activists, 13 of whom were never found. He was briefly banned from travelling to the U.S. The allegation­s have not been proven in court so far.

Mr. Subianto went into a selfimpose­d exile to Jordan in 2002. With his brother Hashim’s financial backing, he started his own party, the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra). His political role models include Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra (also accused of human rights abuses). Mr. Thaksin was a “bit abrasive, divisive”, but “got things done and the poor love him”, he told Financial Times. Also on the list is Jawaharlal Nehru, who “came from a wealthy family but always defended the poor”.

An internal intelligen­ce assessment by the CIA in 1983 predicted that the “captain could rise to national leadership”. “We believe that

President Suharto may eventually look to his soninlaw to succeed him both as national leader and as guardian of the Suharto family fortunes.”

Mr. Subianto’s presidenti­al aspiration­s have been 22 years in the making. He ran a populist campaign in 2014 claiming that the system was rotten, leaders corrupt and Indonesia was at risk of becoming a ‘failed state’. He alleged electoral fraud when Mr. Widodo won, sparking deadly riots in Jakarta. He lost again in 2019, but was given the defence portfolio in Mr. Widodo’s Cabinet.

However, 2024 was different. Firstly, he went from being a hardline nationalis­t and Islamist to a loyalist, integratin­g himself with Indonesia’s political elite. Mr. Subianto cast aside his rabblerous­er image to position himself as a pengabadi, a “patriot ready to service his people” and a “keen student and follower” of Mr. Widodo’s leadership, suggest analysts.

Secondly, Mr. Subianto’s popularity drew momentum from Indonesia’s young electorate, who make up more than half of the 204 million voters. This is a demographi­c that has no living memory of Suharto’s brutal regime. Spectators note that Mr. Subianto’s campaign is designed for a TikTok generation, a “softer” counterima­ge to his pre2019 mercurial persona. On Instagram, Mr. Subianto shares pictures of food, vintage family portraits and his cat Bobby. TikTok is flooded with videos of his signature dance moves.

Some worry that with TikTok, Mr.

Subianto is revising history, ensuring young voters remain unaware of the alleged human rights abuses. Others, however, suggest young Indonesian­s are keen to judge the General based on promises of employment rather than the sins of the past. “...everybody at some point has an intention to reform. And now he is different,” a 17yearold told a media outlet.

Chatham House’s Ben Bland argued that people’s enthusiasm for Mr. Subianto “reflects their conviction that he will uphold Jokowi’s positive economic legacy” and a “faith that their democratic institutio­ns can rein in even a strongwill­ed President”.

Fear for the future

But analysts fear that Mr. Subianto’s electoral promises of new jobs and social welfare “lack serious reform commitment”. He also pledged to protect Indonesia from the influence of foreign powers. “Don’t let us be pitted against each other by foreign nations,” he said last week. Mr. Subianto recently called for a status quo “rebalancin­g” where Indonesia learns not from the West, but from countries like China and India.

Activists fear Mr. Subianto’s presidency will breathe new life into Suharto’s old repressive regime. With Mr. Subianto’s candidacy, the election is “an existentia­l moment for the prodemocra­cy and human rights movement”.

An early sign, they argued, is the way Mr. Widodo’s government pushed a controvers­ial law allowing his son to be Mr. Subianto’s running mate. With Mr. Gibran and an ‘institutio­nalist’ such as Mr. Subianto at the helm, incumbent Mr. Widodo would be the first in Indonesia’s political history to have played kingmaker.

It is unclear which persona will govern: the nationalis­t General, the blazing Islamist, or the gemoy grandfathe­r. “...most who know him well emphasise his unpredicta­ble personalit­y. And that is never good for governance,” scholar Eve Warburton told BBC. For now, the “reformed” Subianto promises to “protect all citizens”. For now, he promises “joy”. The TikTok General will soon be Indonesia’s President, at last.


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