A controversial general is likely to be Indonesia’s next leader

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At first blush, he didn’t seem too scared. At last year’s top Asian security conference, held in a glittering ballroom at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, Indonesia’s defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, proposed a peace plan for Ukraine. Clad in western and traditional attire peci cap, he then argued for an immediate cease-fire to establish a demilitarized buffer zone. Russia and Ukraine would take 15km away from their forward positions. The United Nations would send peacekeepers and organize a referendum to decide which country owned the disputed territory. China, a major investor in Indonesia in recent years, praised Mr. Prabowo’s vision. Ukraine’s defense minister called it a “Russian plan” and “strange”.

The strangest part of Mr. Prabowo’s speech was not that it seemed to be an immediate endorsement of Vladimir Putin. It went against the official policy of Indonesia, which had voted to deny that Russia had invaded Ukraine at the UN. Mr. Prabowo, the favorite to win the presidential election on February 14, had not spoken to the current president, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), or the Indonesian foreign ministry. For some Asia strategists, his revolution was the promise of a volatile new leadership in the world’s fourth largest country.

The history of the former general is a cause for concern. A former son-in-law of Suharto, who became dictator in 1998, Mr Prabowo stands accused of crimes during his decades in the military – including at the helm of the special forces his, in the former Indonesian region of East Timor. He is also said to have ordered the kidnapping of more than 20 pro-democracy activists in 1998, 13 of whom are still missing. (He denies any wrongdoing.) He was at one point banned from entering America and Australia because of these allegations.

After losing the last two presidential elections to Jokowi, Mr. Prabowo falsely claimed that the vote was stolen. In 2019 eight people were killed after he urged his supporters to protest against the election result. He has also tried to abolish the direct election of regional leaders and has said that Indonesia needs an authoritarian leader. This raises a more worrying question about the future of Indonesia under the possible leadership of Prabowo. Will the world’s third largest democracy continue its successful rise in the post-Suharto era, or will it return to authoritarianism?

Mr Prabowo has his strong base in the race for support from Jokowi, who is very popular. The president’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, is Mr Prabowo’s running mate. There are rumors of a deal between Mr Prabowo and Jokowi that would allow the outgoing president to influence behind the scenes after his term ends in October. Jokowi’s popularity is partly based on his strong economic record. During ten years in power he has presided over an annual growth of 5%, unleashing reforms and a resource nationalization policy that helped develop the nickel mining industry responsible for nearly half of the world’s output. At the same time, it has weakened Indonesia’s older democratic institutions.

Photo: The Economist

Last October the country’s constitutional court, whose chief justice is Jokowi’s brother-in-law, delivered a decision that effectively made the president’s 36-year-old son an exception to a rule that prevents a person anyone under the age of 40 from running for president. or vice president. Jokowi is also said to have backed the once independent anti-corruption commission. He is now facing great criticism that he is interfering with the election. Rival campaign teams accuse state agencies of arbitrarily canceling their rallies and intimidating Jokowi’s critics. Prominent Indonesian academics say the president shows disdain for democracy.

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote on February 14, the election will be run off at the end of June. That would allow the vote against Prabowo to consolidate, reducing the general’s chance of winning. Mr. Prabowo’s two main opponents, Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education and governor of Jakarta, and Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of the Central Java region, are better qualified and more capable than he is. But their lackluster campaigns failed to convince many that Prabowo’s presidency would be dangerous. according to The Economist’s total of recent polls, Mr Prabowo currently has around 53% of the vote. Mr. Anies, who was sacked from Jokowi’s cabinet, has 20%, and Mr. Ganjar, the candidate of Indonesia’s largest political party, has 19%.

Politics of TikTok

Indonesian elections tend to be decided by personality, not policy. Certainly, Mr. Prabowo’s team has restored his image by quickly posting short videos of the former communal dance on TikTok, which has more subscribers in Indonesia than any country except America . Such gimmicks have helped to alienate younger voters, who are largely pro-Mr Prabowo, from the past. Many consider his military record to be an advantage. Indonesia’s military is its most trusted public institution, according to surveys.

Photo: The Economist

It is not clear what Mr. Prabowo would do with the power he had wanted for a long time. He has promised to maintain Jokowi’s measures, including a nickel-based industrial policy and a plan to move the capital from Jakarta to a site in the jungles of Borneo. But with his explosive spirit and erratic behavior, there is little reason to think that Mr. Prabowo would delay Jokowi if elected. His other big ideas are usually impractical or ruinously expensive.

Mr. Prabowo has said that double-digit growth is possible. His team says they aim to deliver 6-7% annual growth, to prevent Indonesia from falling into the middle-income trap. But its economy has not grown at 7% since 1996, before the Asian financial crisis. And Mr. Prabowo has not given much detail on how he would make it grow faster. His speeches are full of fiery nationalism. “Some of us used to sell raw materials to foreigners at cheap prices. I say: all our wealth must go through domestic downstream processing!” said recently, referring to a policy that forces foreign goods companies to add value to their products in Indonesia.

Mr Prabowo also says he wants to reduce Indonesia’s reliance on food imports. As defense minister, he has overseen the destruction of thousands of acres of forest in a failed attempt to boost rice production. He says he will give all Indonesian schoolchildren free milk and lunch to prevent malnutrition that affects one in five. This program will cost about $83m a day, according to a spokesman for Mr. Prabowo, Burhanuddin Abdullah, a former governor of Indonesia’s central bank. Mr. Prabowo’s rivals argue that policies to reduce stunting should target pregnant mothers and newborns, not school-aged children. Neither candidate has said anything significant about foreign policy, other than trying to woo the 9m Indonesian voters who work abroad, many of them maids, nannies and laborers. construction sites.

The election has had two positives. Around 100m people watched five candidate debates on television each. The turnout is expected to be incredible. And across the world’s largest islands, voters seem to value their right to vote. On a recent day on the campaign trail, tens of thousands traveled, sometimes for hours, on foot, motorbike or truck to catch a glimpse of Mr Anies canvassing in support on the island of Madura on the side of the East Java. He has held more than 20 open forums throughout Indonesia, called Anies desk or “Challenge Anies”, in which voters are invited to ask impromptu questions.

Villagers in northern Sumatra asked Mr. Anies about land rights. Younger Indians wanted to know if he would legalize marijuana. This type of campaign is a break from the past, where politicians would pay dancers and musicians to entertain voters at rallies. It is also a “better way to compete”, says Mr Anies. It is rather difficult to imagine this vision of a worse Indonesian democracy being realized under Mr. Prabowo.

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