regular-article-logo Sunday, 14 April 2024

The deal will go sour

There’s a coalition of parties behind this deal, but it’s hard to believe that Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, a political novice, will be a match for the ruthless Prabowo, a 72-year-old veteran

Gwynne Dyer Published 29.02.24, 07:15 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File photo

The outgoing Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, concluded his second five-year term on February 14 with a national election in which his chosen successors seem to have won a convincing victory. ‘Jokowi’, as everybody calls him, still enjoys 70% public approval and has every right to be proud of his past.

The national economy has grown 43% under his rule, and democracy has become normal in a country where dictatorship was once the norm. People are living better, coups, massacres and genocides are long past, and Indonesia is growing into its status as a major player internationally (fourth in population, 16th in economy).


But something weird has happened. Prabowo Subianto has been elected president.

Prabowo, a former general, is a living symbol of the bad old days. His father came from a wealthy family and served as a cabinet minister under both Indonesia’s founding dictator, Sukarno, and the brutal general who ruled for thirty years after him, Suharto. Prabowo married Suharto’s daughter in 1983 and served as a special forces commander fighting resistance activists in Indonesian-occupied East Timor and separatists in West Irian (New Guinea). In both conflicts, he was accused of human rights abuses.

The accusations that just won’t go away, however, concern the kidnapping, torture and murder of pro-democracy protesters during the non-violent campaign to oust Suharto in 1998. “It was my superiors who told me what to do,” Prabowo insisted in his first presidential debate ten years ago. But that was not much of a defence in law.

Prabowo was also accused of inciting the anti-Chinese pogroms that swept Jakarta in the last days of Suharto’s rule. He was dishonorably discharged from the military and the United States banned his entry. (The ban was lifted by the Donald Trump administration in 2020.)

He returned from exile in 2009 and founded a right-wing ultra-nationalist party. With limitless funds available from his billionaire brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo ran for president in 2014 and 2019, but even with the backing of the business tycoons who control the Indonesian media, he was trounced by Jokowi both times.

In those days Prabowo’s political style was somewhere between Juan Perón and Benito Mussolini, belligerently anti-foreign and over-the-top dramatic: he sometimes arrived at rallies riding on a horse. But he’s getting better political advice these days and prefers to play a benevolent grandfather dancing badly on TikTok.

That change of face wouldn’t have been enough to win him the presidency, however, without the help of Jokowi himself, who brought Prabowo in from the cold and made him defence minister in 2019. This greatly puzzled people who admired Jokowi, but gradually the plot became clear.

Nepotism has always been a curse in Indonesian politics, and it turns out that Jokowi is not immune. Maybe he justified his actions by telling himself that somebody like Prabowo would ruin his legacy after he was gone (the Constitution says two terms is the limit), but in any case, he made a secret deal with his erstwhile rival.

Making Prabowo minister of defence was just the first step. The deal was that Prabowo would make Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, his running mate in the 2024 election in return for Jokowi’s support.

It worked. The Indonesian voters were left with limited choice once the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ had made a deal. However, the vice-presidency may be worth no more than "a bucket of warm spit", as the former American vice-president, John Nance Garner, once warned fellow Texan and prospective vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson. (And he didn’t really say ‘spit’).

There’s a coalition of parties behind this deal, but it’s hard to believe that Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, a political novice, will be a match for the ruthless Prabowo, a 72-year-old veteran. The current deal is unlikely to work, and Jokowi’s ability to control the new government (through Gibran) will be a lot less than he supposes.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book is The Shortest History of War

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