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Jokowi Offers Prabowo a Piece of the Pie

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, right, shakes hands with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto during the inauguration ceremony at the State Palace in Jakarta on Oct. 23. ADEK BERRY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

BY , 

In late May, riots raged in parts of Jakarta following the announcement that incumbent Indonesian President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, had been reelected to a second five-year term by nearly 17 million votes.

In the State Palace just over a mile away, Jokowi’s advisors saw the hand of retired Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s defeated challenger, in the protests. Prabowo, they allege, had instigated the riots in the hope of a popular uprising that would overthrow Jokowi and install Prabowo in his place.

If that was the plan, it did not work. The riots were quickly put down, and authorities charged some veterans close to Prabowo with treason and the illegal movement of weapons. At one point, the police notified Prabowo that he too might be the subject of a treason investigation.

Instead, just five months later, Jokowi has announced Prabowo as the defense minister in his second-term cabinet.

It is a decision without precedent in Indonesian political history—and one that could have extraordinary consequences for the world’s third-largest democracy. Although Jokowi made the decision in the hopes that it would bring stability, it will likely offer just the opposite, and it could augur poorly for human rights and the rule of law.

Before he entered politics, Prabowo was one of Indonesia’s most powerful generals as the commander of the Army Strategic Reserve Command and the son-in-law of the dictator Suharto. A graduate of advanced infantry and special forces courses at the U.S. military’s Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, he was a favorite of American military advisors. Many anticipated he would one day command the military and even succeed his father-in-law. Nor did Prabowo merely marry into power. His own family comes from a Javanese aristocratic line that goes back centuries. Prabowo’s grandfather founded Indonesia’s central bank, and his father was a prominent economist and minister. As Prabowo’s army career took off, his younger brother, Hashim, made a fortune in the private sector.

When protests threatened to bring down Suharto in 1998, Prabowo ordered a special forces team to kidnap various pro-democracy activists.

When protests threatened to bring down Suharto in 1998, Prabowo ordered a special forces team to kidnap various pro-democracy activists.

He claims all those his troops kidnapped were returned unharmed—although more than a dozen other activists never came back. Suharto stepped down on May 21, 1998, allowing Vice President B.J. Habibie to succeed him.

The following day, after Prabowo was stripped of his command, he went to the palace with a number of his men. He says he voluntarily relinquished his weapon before seeing the new president; others present say he had to be disarmed. Prabowo says that he was merely pleading with Habibie to keep command of his troops. Habibie and his aides, fearing a coup attempt, refused these demands and left the palace. Prabowo claims he had no intention of seizing power.

Prabowo was dismissed from the military months later, following the recommendations of a board of senior generals. After a period in self-exile, Prabowo has spent the last decade seeking the presidency through his own political party, the Great Indonesia Movement, or Gerindra, which is built around his personality and populist rhetoric and supported primarily by his brother’s fortune.

Prabowo’s brand of economic nationalism and identity politics has appealed to voters. Gerindra has done well in the last two legislative elections in 2014 and 2019, each time securing just over 10 percent of the allocated seats in the national legislature. While Prabowo has lost two consecutive presidential elections, his party remains the third-largest in the People’s Representative Council, after the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, affiliated with Jokowi, and the Golkar Party, which was once a cornerstone of Suharto’s rule.

Jokowi, a mild-mannered, almost shy figure who rose from humble origins, appears at first to present a stark contrast to Prabowo. He first came to national attention as the successful mayor of his hometown of Surakarta. He was supported by Prabowo in his election as governor of Jakarta in 2012, only to turn on his sponsor by running against him for president in 2014. This year’s rematch has cemented their rivalry and Indonesians’ impression of the two as representing opposite poles of Indonesian politics: Jokowi supporters tend to be more pluralist, while Prabowo supporters are more conservative.

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  1. Evan’s article is thought provoking. I am still very wary of Prabowo. A leopard does not change its spots.

    Jokowi, don’t turn your back.

    However, on the streets people are taking the decision at face value and think that he will be a good Mentri Pertahanan – even those that chose Jokowi in the election. They have a pragmatic view that keeping the enemy close will prevent the FPI becoming a powerful group within Indonesia.

  2. Prabowo will be a ‘perfect’ minister in oreder to regain credibility..he hopes. But the lion lies in waiting and China and Russai will ‘use’ him to challenge Australia whilst we are sleeping.



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