Should Indonesians be concerned about a military figure coming to power?
After months of rumors over who Gerindra (the Great Indonesia Movement Party) would choose to run on its ticket for next year’s presidential election, party chairman Prabowo Subianto has been named.
This sets up a potential rematch between Subianto of the leading opposition party and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the former Jakarta governor who won their last electoral contest in 2014.
Subianto served as a former commander of military operations in Timor-Leste and reportedly oversaw the deaths of hundreds of Timorese. His father-in-law was Suharto, Indonesia’s second president who held the post for 30 years until 1998.
On April 11, Gerindra party members unanimously voiced their support for Subianto, who was also a former commander of the nation’s military special forces known as Kopassus, during the party’s national convention.
Party members appeared unperturbed by his loss to Widodo nearly four years ago. They seemed equally unfazed by recent opinion polls, which indicate that support for the incumbent president to stay in power for another five years is rising, or the fact that he has secured the support of much of his ruling coalition.
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Since Subianto’s candidacy was formalized at a closed-doors hearing, without media coverage, the question is: Will there be another head-to-head rematch between Subianto and Widodo (and if so, how intense it will be)?
Meanwhile, expectations are running high that Widodo can continue to steer the country forward until 2024 — based on his achievements — giving Subianto a mountain to climb.
A survey by Poltracking Indonesia in February revealed the five favorites for the May 2019 race, with Widodo No. 1 and Subianto lagging at No. 2.
According to the poll, 55.9 percent of people prefer Widodo compared to just 29.9 percent who favor Subianto.
The three other names are Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, retired general Gatot Nurmantyo, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Susilo is the reigning chairman of the Democratic Party.
A similar poll conducted by Indo Barometer has also placed Widodo on top.
As of now, five parties representing total votes of 52.21 percent have formalized their support for Widodo.
This is higher than the presidential threshold of 20 percent of seats in the House of Representatives or 25 percent of the votes in the previous election.
At the last election, Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), garnered 18.95 percent of votes, followed by Golkar (14.75 percent), Nasional Democratic (6.72 percent), the United Development Party (6.53 percent) and the People’s Conscience Party (5.26 percent).
Newly established parties like the Indonesian Unity Party and the Indonesian Solidarity Party have also publicly declared they would stand behind Widodo.
On the other hand, Subianto’s obvious supporter is his own party, Gerindra. Its opposition partners, the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), have not taken an official stance yet but many expect they will end up throwing their support behind him.
In 2014, Gerindra earned 11.81 percent of the vote while PKS and PAN won 6.79 percent and 7.59 percent, respectively. Based on those numbers, a coalition of the three would have made a combined 26.19 percent.
Another two big parties with significant bargaining power who could prove formidable allies for either candidate are the National Awakening Party (PKB) and Democrats. They scored 9.04 percent and 10.19 percent of the vote in the last election, respectively.
There is also a possibility that the Democratic Party led by Yudhoyono will shrug off any talk of joining a coalition, as it has done in previous years.
The PKB is even considering an alliance between Gatot Nurmantyo, who served as commander of the National Armed Forces from 2015-2017, and its chairman Muhaimin Iskandar.
Meanwhile, the Golkar Party, which was part of the opposition last time round, has now closed ranks with the government, making it harder for Subianto to form a substantive coalition.
If he cannot win over more parties to his cause, the presidential race will be even tougher.
In an effort to boost his political standing Subianto has leaned on controversial rhetoric to draw people’s attention.
Recently, he attacked the government for allowing the country’s natural resources to be controlled by foreign companies while ramping up its foreign debt.
He said this would make Indonesia a failed state by 2030 due to mismanagement.
He also condemned the status quo that sees a small elite control most of Indonesia’s resources.
Most are Chinese-Indonesians, which led him to accuse Widodo of bowing to Chinese influence if not communism itself.
This is a sensitive issue as the president has on several occasions been accused of supporting communism, which is avowedly atheist and antagonistic to all religions.
Subianto said he also regrets not carrying out a coup when he had the chance in 1998, months if not weeks before the fall of Soeharto.
He also has gone on record saying he wished he had not endorsed Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, as vice governor when Widodo was running for the position of Jakarta governor in 2012.
Two years later, Widodo became president while Purnama became governor. Subianto’s hatred for Purnama was demonstrated during last year’s gubernatorial election, where Subianto teamed up with Islamist groups, leading to the victory of Anies Baswedan.
According to observers, Subianto’s recent rhetoric certainly aims to test the waters and show people that his party and its candidates running for this year’s June election are nationalists despite claims they support Islamists.
He wants to impress on the public that he is critical of injustice in society, and as such is presenting himself as an agent of change.
Subianto’s military background has turned him into a combatant who seizes every opportunity to win. His decision to run for the presidency was based mainly on his political intuition and self-proclaimed role as a reformist.
Financially, he has all the resources at his disposal that he needs.
Based on a report to the Indonesian Election Commission in 2014, he was worth over $148 million at that time, based on the income and value of his various businesses and properties.
On paper, Subianto may have already fallen way behind Widodo. But one cannot deny the fact that he has loyal supporters who do not like the incumbent, particularly Islamists, who view him as an enemy.
There are no statistics showing exactly how broad Subianto’s support base is, but one thing is for sure: They are ready to stand behind him if he pays serious attention to perceived threats to Islam.
So will the next presidential race be a repeat of 2014?
While it is still too early to give a fair answer, let’s not forget that the parties within his coalition capitalized on sectarian sentiment to help independent Anies Baswedan win the Jakarta governor election last year.
There are fears they will apply a similar strategy in some strategic areas in the June elections, when 160 million people are expected to cast their ballots for new governors, mayors and district heads.
Meanwhile, if there are no leading candidates beside Widodo and Subianto, the next presidential election will be an intense affair as the contender will do everything in his power to avoid losing for a second time.
However, critics say he would practically have to move a mountain to unseat Widodo, especially since many of his supporters have jumped ship of late in response to improvements Widodo has made in education, health care, support for Muslim clerics, and other areas.
Published in UCA News on April 18, 2018. Siktus Harson is head of operations at ucanews.com’s Jakarta bureau.