FOR followers of Indonesian national politics it will feel like déjà vu, as Prabowo Subianto and the incumbent President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo look to re-face each other for the top job next year in a presidential rematch.
The former general has been a contentious figure, but nonetheless remains widely popular across the Indonesian electorate. He thus represents the biggest potential threat to Jokowi’s election platform.
Prabowo is an enduring fixture of Indonesian political life. After having married former President Suharto’s daughter and overseen a controversial tenure as commander of the Army’s special forces, he has made the transition into career in business and politics, eventually on the national stage.
As party chairman and chief patron, Prabowo has long been tipped to lead Gerindra (Great Indonesian Movement Party) into the 2019 election race, but it was only last Wednesday at the national coordination meeting that this was officially declared.
Arriving to the closed-door meeting in typically paleaceous style – in this case on horseback to a marching band – Prabowo expressed his enthusiasm for candidature on the condition of Gerindra’s favour with associated parties.
This is a reference to the presidential nomination threshold. According to the 2017 Elections Law, parties or coalitions intending to nominate a presidential candidate must have at least 20 percent of seats in the legislature or 25 percent of the popular vote as of the previous election. As Gerindra maintains only 13 percent of seats and 11.81 percent of the popular vote, the party must enter into a coalition with one or more allies.
Indeed, this appears to have been delivered last week, with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and National Mandate Party (PAN) in attendance. However, third-party support for Gerindra has not yet been confirmed at this stage and in Indonesia where political ‘horse trading’ is commonplace, this could easily shift again. Nonetheless, the acceptance of his party’s mandate for leadership saw a shirtless Prabowo paraded by a crowd of adoring supporters.
As 2014 election standoff was lost and won by only a small margin of 53.15 to 46.85 percent, these developments are important. Furthermore, given Gerindra’s defeat of Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama in the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial elections, Prabowo’s ability to manoeuvre effectively in national politics has not waned. Yet it remains to be seen how the potential alliance with PKS or others will affect Prabowo’s chances.
Prabowo first appeared on the national political scene when he failed to received candidature for the Golkar party, before establishing Gerindra in 2008. When in the 2009 legislative election Gerindra won only 4.46 percent of seats within the People’s Representative Council, the party opted to align itself with the PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), founded and chaired by Megawati Sukarnoputri, President between 2001-2004 and daughter of first President Sukarno.
Despite sitting ideologically apart, Prabowo and Megawati were paired as running mates for the Presidential Election in July 2009. Following their loss, the PDI-P reshuffled to support Jokowi as candidate for the 2014 election, now pitted against Prabowo and the Gerindra coalition.
The cyclical nature of Indonesian politics can be baffling, and Prabowo’s journey is testament to the elite capture and nepotism that still seems core to national leadership. Within the world’s third largest democracy, personality and politics blend in potent and often repetitive forms.
By Mason Littlejohn, a Hamer Scholar in Indonesia and a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.