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The Rise of “TikTok President” Prabowo Subianto: Indonesia’s New Leader and His Pragmatic Approach

Prabowo Subianto hails from a quintessential Indonesian aristocratic military lineage. He is the son-in-law of the erstwhile Indonesian military authoritarian figure, Suharto, also known as Haji Mohammad Suharto. He has long occupied significant military positions during the reign of Suharto.

In 1998, Prabowo faced accusations implicating him in the scandal of abducting dissidents by Indonesia’s elite “Kopassus special forces”. Despite the ultimate accountability falling on his subordinates, he bore the brunt of immense pressure. Consequently, he tendered his resignation and sought refuge in Jordan and other Middle Eastern domains. However, with the passage of time, he reemerged onto the Indonesian political landscape, collaborating with others to establish the “Greater Indonesia Movement Party” (Gerindra) in 2008. Displaying a right-wing disposition, he contested the presidential elections in both 2014 and 2019, clashing with the formidable incumbent, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who, despite her gradual rightward shift, forged an alliance against him, only to be thwarted by the current President Joko Widodo.

In 2019, he forged an unexpected alliance with Jokowi, assuming the mantle of Minister of Defense in Jokowi’s administration. Towards the end of 2023, as Jokowi, ineligible for re-election after two terms, threw his weight behind Prabowo’s presidential bid, Prabowo reciprocated by proposing Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, as his vice-presidential candidate.

The election on February 14, 2023, famously dubbed “the largest single election day in the world,” witnessed Indonesia conducting simultaneous presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. Over 200 million voters across the archipelago cast their ballots at more than 820,000 polling stations, with myriad candidates vying for various positions. Notably, only three contenders vied for the presidential throne. Besides Prabowo, backed by Jokowi, stood the 54-year-old intellectual and former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, along with the 55-year-old erstwhile Jakarta governor Ganjar Pranowo of Central Java.

Initial prognostications foresaw the main contest between Prabowo and Ganjar, the latter being affiliated with the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the predominant parliamentary entity to which Jokowi himself once belonged before his ascendancy to the presidency (per Indonesian regulations, the president must not be affiliated with any political party). Ganjar’s vice-presidential running mate, the incumbent Coordinating Minister for Security Affairs Mohammad Mahfud, added further weight to his candidacy.

Originally ineligible due to age restrictions stipulated by Indonesia’s electoral laws, Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran, aged 36, received an unexpected reprieve in November 2023 when the Indonesian Constitutional Court ruled in favor of his candidacy alongside Prabowo. This ruling sparked considerable controversy, resulting in the removal of Anwar Usman, the chief judge of the Constitutional Court and brother-in-law of President Joko Widodo, by the Dignity Committee of the Constitutional Court (MKMK).

As for Anies, his ties with fundamentalist groups and public dissent against major projects, such as the capital relocation, garnered him considerable strife. Partnering with religious party leader Muhaimin Iskandar, he found himself embroiled in difficulties from the outset, akin to being “studious with the prince.”

The final electoral outcome validated earlier forecasts. Quick count, the officially sanctioned rapid vote tallying system, declared Prabowo victorious with 53.4%-59.8% of the votes, surpassing Anis’s 23.11%-26.39% and Ganjar’s 16.72%-17.12%, securing a resounding “one-wave” triumph, obviating the need for a runoff on June 26, 2024. Concurrently, in the Indonesian Congress comprising 580 seats, the Greater Indonesia Movement Party garnered 12.48% of the votes, ranking third after the Democratic Party of Struggle and the “functional group” (Golkar). With the largest party, the Democratic Party of Struggle, in alliance with it, it is anticipated that Congress will impose minimal constraints on the president’s governance henceforth.

In his previous defeats, Prabowo vehemently opposed Jokowi’s extensive infrastructure projects and welfare policies, to little avail. Subsequent events underscored that in a populous nation grappling with structural weaknesses and inefficiencies, Jokowi’s strategy of “development is gold and welfare is silver” enjoys broad popular support (Jokowi’s approval rating currently stands at 80%), prompting Prabowo to recalibrate his approach. Post-2019, he endeavors to cultivate a new persona characterized by pragmatism, with a focus on economic growth and development.

Projects that Prabowo previously opposed, such as the extension of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway and the capital relocation to Sumatra, now garner his endorsement. His campaign platform, dubbed “Jokowi 3.0,” pledges continued investment in infrastructure and prioritization of the export-oriented commodity sector. Additionally, he embraces a “sugar delivery promise,” reminiscent of Jokowi’s policies, allocating 460 trillion rupiahs (approximately US$29.4 billion) to provide free meals and milk to schoolchildren nationwide.

International analysts, including Aaron Connelly from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Hilman from the Indo-Pacific Development Center at the Lowy Institute in Australia, Peter Mumford from the Eurasia Group, and others, foresee the Democratic Party maintaining its preeminence. Prabowo is expected to maintain a relaxed stance on economic, trade, infrastructure, and foreign investment policies, potentially surpassing Jokowi to appease public sentiment.

However, politically, Prabowo garners significant support from hardline right-wing factions and Indonesian populists. Analysts, such as Gareth Leather from Capital Economics, Justin Hastings from the University of Sydney, and Laura Schwartz from the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, anticipate the adoption of right-wing populist policies, including stringent regulations on foreign capital and technology transfers, which could deter foreign investment in Indonesia, if implemented excessively.

Lesser and others are also concerned that if the “adverse reputation” amassed by Prabowo from the Suharto era and his military tenure is not “cleansed” in due course, it might dissuade Chinese investment, which holds paramount importance for Indonesia. Chinese enterprises constitute the foremost foreign investor group in Indonesia’s pertinent sectors subsequent to the prohibition on the export of raw nickel ore materials and the enforcement of mandatory on-site smelting policies in 2019. It is purported that Chinese investments in Indonesia’s metal and mining industry have soared to billions of dollars. Should Prabowo, in a bid to appease the “far right,” pursue a course of action that unsettles Chinese investors already wary of Indonesia’s “tarnished history of anti-Chinese sentiment,” the repercussions might be substantial and irreplaceable.

Institutions such as Fitch Ratings express apprehension that Prabowo’s “Jokowi 3.0” strategy, coupled with “substantial benefits” such as “complimentary student meals,” could further exacerbate Indonesia’s medium-term fiscal vulnerabilities. Failing this, financial constraints may ensue, and reneging on commitments risks undermining public trust, potentially becoming a significant concern for Indonesia’s future.

Given the cautious stance of Prabowo’s team on foreign and defense policies during the electoral campaign, most observers opine that, considering the prevailing attitude of caution among the international community and the widespread domestic support for the policies of the Jokowi administration in aforementioned domains, Prabowo, originally a member of Kuwait’s cabinet, is unlikely to undertake any significant risks in this regard. Indonesia is thus anticipated to persist in its policy of “non-alignment,” adeptly balancing between competing interests.

Nevertheless, many observers also contend that, compared to Joko, adept in diplomacy and public relations, Prabowo is perceived to possess a more volatile temperament. He has repeatedly expressed his conviction that “Indonesia should carve out a distinct role in international affairs.” Consequently, in the forthcoming years of international and geopolitical dynamics, we might witness the emergence of a “new Indonesian president” who no longer belongs to the youthful cohort.

In relative terms, most observers doubt the resurgence of religious fundamentalist factions in Indonesia during his tenure, given that even prior to his “rebranding,” he espoused a secular “right-wing” stance and maintained clear demarcations from fundamentalist elements. However, concerns linger that his ascension to power could fuel the expansion of “Great Indonesian nationalism,” posing a threat to the national unity and social cohesion of this multi-ethnic archipelago spanning three time zones and comprising tens of thousands of islands.

“TikTok President”

Many Indonesians harbor lingering apprehensions stemming from the grim legacy of the Suharto era, and Prabowo’s close association with these “original transgressions.” His ignominious defeats in his previous two electoral bids are also linked to the portrayal of a far-right hero, embodied in the ubiquitous depiction of a “Strongman” character, which failed to resonate with the public.

Since 2019, he has endeavored to revamp his public image. This electoral campaign not only tempered much of the radical rhetoric and political platforms but also embraced TikTok, the international iteration of Douyin, and Instagram, two of Indonesia’s most popular social platforms, to meticulously craft his image. The new series of public relations endeavors present a “gentle and benign” persona: the “gemoy” (gemoy, purportedly a simplified rendition of South Korea’s “group dance”), dubbed the “viral dance,” featuring swaying hips and lively movements, intermittently garnishes online platforms. Additionally, cartoon-like avatars affectionately dubbed “adorable grandpa” are ubiquitously disseminated at no expense.

Of Indonesia’s 200 million-plus voters, over 50% fall within the 17 to 40 age bracket, with approximately one-third around the age of 30. For them, the “ominous Suharto era” remains an abstract and remote concept. Douyin, popular dances, cat videos, the “harmless persona,” and “sweet dissemination” are palpable and tangible. It is this distinctive transformation in social structure and demographic composition that facilitated Prabowo’s effortless “rebranding” aimed at altering public perception at the electoral level.

The pivotal role of online social platforms has earned Prabowo the moniker of the “TikTok President” within Indonesian public discourse.

While the majority of domestic and international observers adhere to the maxim “power is easily assumed, but character is enduring,” the dramatic shift in “persona” is perceived more as a strategic maneuver by the septuagenarian Prabowo to gain ascendancy rather than a genuine transformation. However, most concur that Prabowo’s triumph this time around is primarily attributable to his adeptness in courting young voters relatively unfamiliar with the “blemished history” and their anticipation of policies in alignment with Jokowi’s legacy. Despite his party’s status as the third-largest in Congress before his election and the constant encumbrance by Jokowi’s faction, Prabowo is expected to face numerous constraints and reservations even if he harbors intentions of adopting a more audacious approach in the future.

Some domestic pundits label Prabowo as a “pro-American politician,” a designation that lacks accuracy.

Owing to allegations of involvement in various incidents in East Timor, Papua, and elsewhere (notably the 1983 Kraras “Widows Village” incident), as well as the notorious “Kopasus Incident,” Prabowo found himself on the “entry restriction blacklist” in the United States for over two decades. His subsequent “rehabilitation” primarily ensued from reconciliatory overtures with Joko, culminating in his appointment as the Indonesian Minister of Defense. The United States, eager to advance the “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” underwent a volte-face driven by pragmatic considerations, albeit this maneuver has been subject to consistent criticism. There exists staunch opposition from factions on both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S. Congress.

On one hand, concerns loom over the potential repercussions of his “tainted history” on their interests; on the other hand, apprehensions persist that his tenure might witness efforts to appease populists at the expense of disrupting the existing order. European and American media outlets have generally adopted a cool demeanor towards Prabowo’s electoral victory. Notably, influential financial media entities such as Bloomberg in the United States and The Economist in the United Kingdom have employed phrasing such as “His election signifies a setback for democracy” and “This poses a threat to democratic principles,” respectively, in their post-election special reports. While the actual content remains relatively neutral and balanced, the titles provoke intrigue.

For Indonesia, the historical reminiscences and contemporary sentiments within Chinese society are intricate and nuanced. However, in practice, China stands as Indonesia’s foremost trading partner, with substantial investments exceeding tens of billions of dollars in mining and infrastructure ventures alone. Strategic interests, notably nickel ore, hold immense significance in pivotal industries such as electric vehicles, constituting resources in which China faces relative scarcity. Moreover, Indonesia serves as a crucial nexus for peace and stability in China’s “Southern Gate” and the comprehensive connectivity envisaged by the “Belt and Road Initiative.” For the enigmatic and adaptable persona of the new Indonesian president, prioritizing realism and the “maximization of national interests,” leveraging the influence of its regional powerhouse and primary trading partner, and advocating for continued alignment with China, may epitomize the optimal trajectory for bilateral relations in the future.

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