International Analysis

Indonesia elected former military officer with autocratic streak

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Indonesian president-elect, Prabowo Subianto, and Sandiaga Uno (image by Ministry of Information via

Australia must navigate the hardline tendencies of its new President-elect, Prabowo Subianto, a former military officer with a chequered human rights record, writes Duncan Graham.

O Judgment ! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.

 William Shakespeare

TO LEAD THEIR nation for the next five years, Indonesians have picked a sinister military autocrat with a hideous past masquerading as a comic character.

Through a series of cuddly cartoons, untested promises and silly claims, electors were seduced into believing Prabowo Subianto, 72, a cashiered general with a dirty history, was really a gemoy — an adorable and funny guy, fit and proper to run the world’s fourth-largest nation.

Though the two failed candidates (an academic and an administrator) and 48 civil society watchdogs have alleged malfeasance, overall, the 14 February electoral process seems likely to withstand challenges.

The campaign had buckets of ballyhoo and thimbles of quality. The focus was on personalities, not policy. Avowed piety eclipsed proven merit.

Just as U.S. Republicans backing Donald Trump ignore his gross transgressions and court convictions, so the Indonesian oligarchs, military and big business who run the nation have stamped down a grim past to lift their man into office.

In 2019, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo invited his once bitter rival to become Defence Minister, ensuring a platform. Last month, he promoted Prabowo to four-star honorary general, giving the disgraced soldier more status and bestowing forgiveness.

They fear discovering their rights and freedoms have been savaged as Indonesia once again becomes a hardline military dictatorship.

For 32 years until 1998, the country was controlled by General Soeharto, Prabowo’s former father-in-law. Prabowo and his wife divorced 25 years ago and neither has remarried.

So who is our neighbour's choice? Is the leader-to-be a fascist, a dictator or a reformed bully? He's certainly a poor reader claiming a sci-fi novel was a research document predicting the end of Indonesia this decade as rapacious foreigners plundered the archipelago’s riches.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has called him "very much a friend of Australia".

Not all see him so benignly. One-time UN advisor Pat Walsh doubts Prabowo has the temperament and skill to govern, or the history. He’s assembled a backgrounder of Prabowo’s East Timor tours with soldiers and militias under his command allegedly committing murders of unarmed civilians and gross human rights abuses.

Former Australian Senator Rex Patrick and journalist Dr Philip Dorling have summarised what happened in 1998: 

‘Troops under Prabowo's command kidnapped and tortured democracy activists and the General was implicated in orchestrating mob violence in Jakarta against Indonesians of Chinese descent.’

That same year, Prabowo was dishonourably discharged from the army and fled to exile in Jordan. He was banned from the U.S. and Australia until 2014. He eventually returned to his homeland and, with family help, became a business tycoon and political aspirant. He has never been charged.

Although it put him in power, Prabowo isn’t keen on democracy. He joined the military as a teen. Though he’s been educated in the U.S. and UK, briefly at Duntroon, and is a polyglot, these are his Trump-style repetitions as reported by The Jakarta Post:

'I’ve participated in five general elections and let me attest, let me testify, that democracy is really, very, very tiring… very, very messy and costly.'

He said much the same a decade ago though better expressed during his first shot at the top job. Two Australian experts on Indonesian politics wrote then that he’d asserted 'direct elections were not compatible with the Indonesian cultural character'.

The academics commented:

This is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is very rare in the modern world for would-be autocrats to openly state that they want to destroy the electoral system through which they seek to achieve power.


They mostly mask such intentions before they’re elected.

Nor is Prabowo fond of a feisty free media, castigating journalists for allegedly “manipulating democracy”. He’s declined interviews with Western writers (including this correspondent), probably concerned they’d ask about his past and highlight transgressions. Human Rights Watch said he did not respond to questions.

It’s also been reported that he's "no fan of economic neo-liberalism and favours a big role for government". Others claim he wants to sell off the notoriously inefficient State Owned Enterprises. The truth is everyone's guessing.

He’s more likely to be personally involved in foreign affairs than Jokowi, but much will depend on who’s appointed foreign minister.

During a televised debate, Prabowo said terrorist attacks in Indonesia were caused by poverty and perpetrated by non-Muslims disguised as Muslims, sent by other countries and controlled by foreigners.

Although his unsubstantiated xenophobia was widely rubbished, the hidden message is that thugs are Christians (the second largest faith group though only ten per cent of the citizenry) or the hated atheists, an even smaller minority. Religion can be an explosive issue.

Western governments have to deal with whoever is delivered by voters. Indonesians have picked Prabowo and Canberra must accept their choice. That doesn't mean they're right.

Duncan Grahamis an Australian journalist living in East Java.

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