Religion Unplugged

Is There a New Strongman Leading the World’s Largest Muslim-Majority Nation?

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, the current defence minister, addresses supporters at an event on February 14, 2024 in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Oscar Siagian via Getty Images)
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, the current defence minister, addresses supporters at an event on February 14, 2024, in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Oscar Siagian via Getty Images)

The Feb. 14 election of Indonesia's current Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto as the country’s president should raise concern in the U.S., both because of who he is and also the chicanery surrounding his campaign.  

Official results will still take some weeks to appear, and there are allegations of election fraud. However, based on the agreement of pre-election polling (and usually reliable vote sampling by a range of reputable organizations), the former general received over 58% of the vote in a three-way race, which means he won't have to face a runoff. He has already been congratulated by the governments of China, the U.K., Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and many others, although the U.S. has not yet done so.

Subianto is the son-in-law of the last Indonesian dictator, Suharto, and his marriage to Suharto’s daughter gave him entrance into Indonesia’s elite. He graduated from the Indonesian Military Academy and spent most of his later career leading the elite Special Forces (Kopassus). He was accused thereby of human rights violations in repressing the movement for independence in East Timor, which claimed hundreds of lives, but his exact role has never been proven.  

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During Suharto’s final years in power, Subianto was the commander directly responsible for carrying out the ruler’s heavy-handed repression of democracy demonstrations and activists. He was accused of being involved in kidnapping 20 student activists — 13 of whom have never been found.

In 1998, after Suharto was forced to step down, Subianto was dishonorably discharged from the military and banned from entering the United States because of these and other alleged human rights violations.  

The ban lasted for 20 years until the Trump administration lifted it when Subianto was appointed defense minister in 2019. There have been no thorough investigations of his conduct. In this election campaign he sought to deflect these questions by striving for a softer, even cuddly image.

Despite this tainted background, he has managed to remain in the public eye and retained sufficient credibility to run for president twice, each time mounting a strong campaign but losing to current President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi. Despite their history as political opponents, at the beginning of his second presidential term, Jokowi appointed Subianto as his minister of defense. This could have been a strategy of keeping his enemies close, or simply co-opting them, but in the last year they have formed an implicit electoral alliance.

They are very different men. Jokowi grew up in poverty in the provinces, became successful in the furniture business and was then elected mayor of the city of Solo in Central Java. Then, as a base, he ran successfully for governor of the sprawling capital, Jakarta, and after two years used this as a springboard to be elected president of the country. After 10 years as president, he is a youthful 62 with a penchant for heavy metal music.

He was the first president from outside Indonesia's elites and came into office with high expectations. With his background in business, he focused consistently on economic policy, and his tenure has generally been marked by stability and economic growth. Because of this, he remains immensely popular but has been term-limited.

However, despite this generally positive record, in Jokowi's last year in office there have been troubling developments. Several groups pushed for constitutional changes that would allow him to run for a third term. Publicly, Jokowi remained aloof from these efforts, but there are suspicions that he supported and may have initiated them. He has also involved himself in the election for his successor, which is perfectly legal but not customary. There are also accusations that he used state resources to bolster his favored candidates, which would be illegal.

Most troubling were Jokowi's maneuvers to advance the career of his oldest son Gibran Rakabuming who, following in his father's footsteps, was currently the mayor of Solo. The Indonesian constitution requires candidates for president and vice-president to be at least 40 years old. Gibran is only 36.  

However, in October 2023, the Constitutional Court held that there could be an exception to this age requirement for candidates who won "a general election, including a regional leader election” such as, for example, an election, by Gibran, to be mayor. The verdict was read out by Chief Justice Anwar Usman, who by an amazing stroke of luck just happens to be Jokowi's brother-in-law and Gibran's uncle.

That these maneuvers were perhaps attempts to cement a dynasty were confirmed when, after Gibran was cleared to run, he was promptly selected as a vice-presidential running mate by, of all people, Subianto. Many believe Jokowi's popularly-blessing reflects a deal with Subianto to lend his electoral support in exchange for the latter continuing his policies and advancing his family's interests.  

Jokowi's blessing as a popular incumbent is a major reason Subianto and Gibran started to lead in the polls and eventually won the election. Indonesia also has a very long presidential transition period, meaning that Jokowi will remain in power until October, which will allow he and Subianto plenty of time to further structure their alliance. There are already rumors that Subianto will step down three years into his five-year term to allow Gibran to take over.

Prabowo is unlikely to make any large changes in foreign policy. Indonesia will continue to pursue a non-aligned path and try to avoid having to make a choice in the Indo-Pacific competition between the U.S. and China.

The recent election, while often ignored in the American press, is elsewhere worrying since, while Indonesia is often overlooked, it is the world's fourth most populous country, the third largest democracy, the seventh largest economy in purchasing power parity, an exporter of key minerals such as nickel, not to mention being by far the world's largest Muslim-majority country, one whose traditional forms of Islam have fit well with democracy.

The main concern is how Subianto’s presidency may affect Indonesian political and religious culture. Apart from his authoritarian past, he has questioned the value of direct elections and suggested that senior leaders countrywide should be chosen by the parliament in which he will likely have a majority, which is a formula for autocracy.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and now perhaps the second-most powerful politician in the country as head of its largest party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is the eldest daughter of Indonesia's first president Sukarno, who was born Koesno Sosrodihardjo. This means that Indonesia’s two leading politicians are the daughter and son-in law of Indonesia's first two presidents, who between them were in office for over half a century. Indonesia may be returning to dynastic politics with Jokowi, the erstwhile outsider, now entering these elites.

Subianto has also previously sought electoral alliances with Islamists, including the now-banned Islamic Defenders Front. Radical forms of Islam are a minority in this largely tolerant country, but their influence has been growing. Though Jokowi was never himself Islamist, he did not fight religious intolerance during his presidency and there was a marked increase in religious freedom violations and blasphemy convictions.

Similarly, while Subianto is no Islamist, his previous willingness to give those parties concessions could strengthen more radical currents. Hence, we may have a more authoritarian country with increasing radicalism and perhaps a new Indonesian strongman.

There are many majority-Muslim democracies in the world, but Indonesia is the largest and, despite many failings, the country has held generally free and fair elections for over a quarter-century, showing that Islam and democracy are compatible. But authoritarianism often reinforces Islamist opposition and undercuts this record. If it does so now, it will be a double tragedy.  

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