Tens of thousands of young Indonesians shouted with joy as presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto entered a packed stadium in the capital Jakarta on Saturday for a final campaign rally.
They shouted even louder when the former commander of the country’s feared special forces blew air kisses and danced on stage. Within minutes, Prabowo’s movements were posted all over social media with hashtags such as “gemoy” – cute in Bahasa Indonesia.
The reaction illustrates the remarkable transformation of the fiery former general, who was dismissed from the Indonesian army for the alleged kidnapping of democracy activists and shunned by the United States for two decades, but is now the favorite to lead the world’s third most populous democracy.
Prabowo’s rebranding as a dancing grandfather, along with support from his former enemy and current president Joko Widodo, brought him to the cusp of the presidency after a long quest.
“Prabowo is running a very different and effective campaign. It’s a lot less angry and a lot more youth-focused. That’s why the dancing part is very dominant during this campaign season,” said Kennedy Muslim, an analyst at survey institute Indikator Politik Indonesia.
More than 204 million Indonesians, around half of whom are under 40, will vote for the archipelago’s next president on February 14. The latest polls suggest Prabowo has a chance of winning the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff. in June.
Prabowo, the oldest of the three contenders, dominates popular social media platforms such as TikTok, while smiling versions of the former general and Gibran Rakabuming Raka, his 36-year-old running mate and son of Widodo, adorn posters of campaign.
The campaign aims to soften the image of Prabowo, described as a fiery nationalist and Islamist in previous presidential bids, and address concerns about his past as a military officer during the late autocrat Suharto’s three-decade rule, a period marked by corruption. and democratic backsliding.
Prabowo, who was Suharto’s son-in-law, is accused by rights groups of being involved in the killing of civilians when he was a young officer in the 1980s in East Timor, which was then fighting against occupation Indonesian. As a general in 1998, he was expelled from the army after being accused of ordering the kidnapping of more than two dozen pro-democracy activists in Jakarta, many of whom reportedly died. Prabowo has always denied these allegations.
Following these accusations, the former general was banned from entering the United States for 20 years, even to attend his son’s graduation. But after being named defense minister by Widodo in 2019, he was invited to meet senior Pentagon officials.
For many Indonesians who are too young to remember the Suharto era or the protests that ended his 32-year rule in 1998, these allegations matter little.
“The past is in the past. His past is probably not who he is today. What’s the harm in giving him a chance, because we can empower someone and they to see his true personality,” said Keane Ahmed, 18, a new voter who attended Prabowo’s last rally.
Desi, another first-time voter, said she thought a TikTok video claiming the allegations against Prabowo was “a misunderstanding.” She supports him because of his proposal for free meals for students across the country. “He’s also cute,” she said.
Opinion polls released this month give Prabowo a solid lead of 25 to 30 points over the other two contenders, former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo. According to the Indikator survey institute, support for Prabowo among those under 42 exceeds 60 percent, while his campaign has also increased his popularity among women.
The other big reason for Prabowo’s appeal is his promise to continue the ever-popular Widodo policies, including encouraging investment in sectors such as nickel processing, which have grown exponentially.
“What really helped was the collaboration of Jokowi and Prabowo and the presence of Gibran, who gave new hope to young Indonesians,” said Erick Thohir, a Widodo cabinet minister who campaigned for Prabowo. “The reason we are all here is for continuity and stability.”
Prabowo also pledged to increase economic growth from 5 percent to 8 percent and “double digits.” While many economists say this is unrealistic, even for a country whose economic outlook has been redefined over the past decade by Widodo’s push toward export-oriented industries, the goal has been welcomed by voters.
“Indonesians want to see their country prosper and become an economic superpower. They want a leader like Prabowo with this kind of point of view,” said Achmad Sukarsono, associate director of consultancy Control Risks.
“This is the most opportune time for Prabowo to stand up. The pendulum is swinging back toward the establishment.”
Prabowo and his family have been entrenched in Indonesian politics for decades. His grandfather was an important figure in the Indonesian independence movement, while his father was a prominent economist who served in Suharto’s cabinet.
Prabowo was educated in the United States, United Kingdom and Switzerland and is fluent in English, French and German. His wealth was estimated at 2 trillion rupiah ($128 million) in 2022, according to Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency, making him the richest of the three candidates.
He first ran for president in 2014, losing to Widodo, who rose to power as a protesting outsider. Five years later, Prabowo lost again, after a polarizing campaign.
But after his re-election, Widodo appointed Prabowo as defense minister. That brought the former general greater acceptance and opened the way for him to try to succeed Widodo, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Political commentators describe a relationship of mutual convenience between the two men, with Prabowo riding Widodo’s popularity while the outgoing president attempts to build his own political dynasty and exert influence through his son once he is in office. finished.
Gibran was admitted to the presidential list after a ruling last year by the Constitutional Court, then headed by Widodo’s brother-in-law. Critics say Gibran’s appointment is an attempt by the president to retain control, although Widodo has denied the allegations.
The backlash against Widodo has intensified as the elections approach. This month, a group of academics condemned the president for orchestrating his son’s nomination and undermining democracy. Prabowo’s opponents alleged that they were used by the state apparatus to deny them approval for certain campaign events.
Widodo did not explicitly support Prabowo but defended his tacit support by saying Indonesian law allows presidents to campaign.
Prabowo’s human rights record, and his rise with Widodo’s support, present a bleak outlook for the country’s democracy, said Hurriyah, director of the Center for Policy Studies at the University of Indonesia, who, like many Indonesians, has only one name.
“The intimidation, state mobilization and manipulation of elections and the electoral process are really worrying,” she said.
Thohir, the minister campaigning for Prabowo, said there were enough checks and balances in Indonesia to prevent a decline in democratic principles. “I don’t think there will be a setback (under Prabowo),” he said.
Additional reporting by Diana Mariska in Jakarta
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