Blood-stained Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto wins largest vote in Indonesian election

Prabowo Subianto (Photo: Wikimedia)

Exit poll companies’ preliminary counts indicate that Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has emerged victorious over his competitors in the Indonesian election, although the official results will not be published until mid-March. Prabowo has exceeded expectations by securing over 58% of votes, contrary to predictions of a tight contest made by several experts. Ganjar Pranowo, the candidate of the ruling PDI-P, is in third place with 16% of the vote share, while Anies Baswedan, the former Education Minister, is in second place with 25%. Prabowo leads in 38 provinces excluding Jakarta, Aceh, and West Sumatra, based on 77% of the votes.

Reversal to authoritarianism?

Prabowo, who once famously stated that “Indonesia is not prepared for democracy,” is likely to be the next President, much to the disappointment of numerous democracy advocates. The son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto served as a top army commander during the oppressive regime. Prabowo was accused of being involved in the abduction of 24 people during the 1998 pro-democracy protests, with 13 of them still unaccounted for. Additionally, he was involved in multiple deadly military operations in Acheh and West Papua and has openly admitted to various human rights crimes.

Having lost two presidential elections to the outgoing Jokowi, Prabowo subsequently planned two coup d’état endeavours to topple the democratically elected government, but they were unsuccessful. After years of political manipulation, he may finally realise his aims now.

During Jokowi’s ten-year tenure, Indonesia saw unprecedented economic liberalisation. At the same time, Indonesia also saw one of the fastest-growing wealth disparities in the region. Jokowi’s policy changes in land and mining acquisition rights and employment standards have created numerous new millionaires but have also plunged millions of impoverished individuals deeper into economic hardship. This contradiction has led to a widening divide between the rural and urban population of Indonesia, fueling the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the country.

Prabowo and his associates began forming connections with various religious groups in order to gain the support of certain segments of society. After the electoral loss for the second time in 2019, Prabowo and his religious allied groups staged mass riots in Jakarta to try and override the election results. However, Jokowi maintained his authority by making concessions to Prabowo and appointing him as the new Defence Minister. Jokowi also adjusted his policies to be more conservative in response to challenges from his detractors, leading to opposition from the youth and working class who demonstrated against these changes.

Jokowi, after completing his two-term limit, attempted to challenge the constitution by proposing a third election bid, but was met with opposition from his own party leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has her own self-serving motives. The power struggle and rivalry between Jokowi and Megawati may have prompted Jokowi to form an alliance with Prabowo to protect his future interests. Ironically, Megawati first gave political legitimacy to Prabowo when she selected him as her running mate in the 2009 elections.

In a stunning turn of events, Jokowi’s 36-year-old son Gibran was named Prabowo’s running mate and vice-presidential candidate. The Mayor of Surakarta was below the age requirement to run for Vice-Presidency. However, the Constitutional Court, led by a relative of Jokowi, controversially allowed an exemption for Gibran.  Also, in defiance of Presidential limitations, Jokowi supported and campaigned openly for Prabowo of Gerindra, a rival party to Jokowi’s PDI-P. Megawati’s pick, Ganjar Pronowo was completely sidelined by Jokowi in the months preceding the elections.

Despite concerns that the hope of establishing a stable democracy in Indonesia after Suharto’s regime ended in 1998 has been dashed by Prabowo’s electoral win, the shift towards a more authoritarian government had already started during Jokowi’s leadership. Jokowi, initially presenting himself as a progressive leader, abandoned his electoral pledges to uphold and enhance democracy. He swiftly transitioned towards authoritarianism when faced with resistance to his attempts to liberalise the Indonesian economy. It is widely speculated that Jokowi has already cut a deal behind the scenes with Prabowo and will remain an influential figure in Indonesian politics in coming years.

Considering Prabowo’s track record, it is reasonable to predict that Indonesia may see a continued decline in its past democratic gains. Prabowo is anticipated to enhance the military’s involvement in Indonesian politics, moving closer to the Suharto era. Simultaneously, he will persist in disseminating racial and religious propaganda to further divide the population and strengthen his authority.

Continuation of Jokowi’s legacy

Choosing Jokowi’s son as the vice-presidential candidate and receiving endorsement from the current President has significantly boosted the credibility of Prabowo’s election campaign. Prabowo shifted from portraying a ‘strong man’ image to presenting himself as a more approachable and amiable character. He was called ‘gemuy’, which roughly means a lovable grandfather. His campaign employed social media outreach and advanced technologies to appeal to the younger demographic. Imran Khan’s AI voice was used in the last Pakistan elections, while Prabowo’s campaign utilised AI technology to recreate audio and visual representations of the late Suharto. Some rural inhabitants in Indonesia viewed life during the oppressive rule of Suharto as more favourable for their economic stability than the exploitation they are experiencing during the so-called ‘democratic era’ that followed 1998.

Prabowo has successfully drawn in a significant portion of the younger demographic through strategic social media initiatives, despite their lack of awareness regarding his controversial history. However, none of the other presidential contenders ran campaigns promoting radical programmes to set themselves apart from Prabowo. All three candidates agree that Jokowi’s economic policies will continue. Previously, Prabowo strongly chastised Jokowi for accepting Chinese financing and expressed support for fostering ties with the US. Recently, he has moderated his views and now fully endorses Jokowi’s ambitions, which does not exclude establishing economic and military ties with the US.

During his Presidency, Jokowi focused on large-scale infrastructure projects, primarily funded by private investors from China. During the ten-year administration, 21 new airports, 36 dams, 18 ports, as well as highways, high-speed trains and metro lines, were constructed. These accomplishments were achieved by a significant increase in the national debt, rising from roughly 200 billion USD when Jokowi took office in 2014 to over 530 billion USD in January of this year. This is excluding the initiative to relocate Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to Nusantara in East Kalimantan by 2045. The $35 billion project and other proposed development initiatives will increase the nation’s debt significantly.

Despite facing severe criticism for his inability to contain the widespread impact of COVID-19, resulting in significant harm to the population, Jokowi has somewhat restored his reputation in the past two years due to a modest economic upturn following the epidemic. Indonesia benefited from the increase in commodity prices due to being the largest producer of nickel, a crucial component in the production of electric vehicles and other raw materials. Foreign investment in nickel production, base metal industries, natural gas, and various other commodities expanded significantly because of rising worldwide demand following the pandemic.

The resurgence of economic activities, particularly in export and mining sectors, boosted Jokowi’s popularity in the last year of his Presidency and  his support for Prabowo significantly influenced Prabowo’s successful political campaign. The polls indicated a close competition among the three Presidential candidates until Prabowo introduced Gibran, which ultimately shifted the balance in his favour.

Workers’ movement

Despite the so-called economic progress that has seen Indonesia become the world’s 17th largest economy in recent years, the organised working class, along with a conscious layer of youth, have waged a number of struggles against the state apparatus in an attempt to limit Jokowi’s neoliberal policies. The adoption of the Omnibus Law, which included the ‘Job Creation Act’, was accurately identified as an oppressive tool used by capitalist multinational corporations to exploit workers and poor farmers. The anti-Omnibus protests peaked during the bill’s introduction in the House of Representatives in 2019, and was only quelled by the imposition of emergency measures to stop the spread of the covid virus.

The implementation of the Omnibus Law sparked significant outrage among the working class, leading to heightened pressure on trade union leadership to mobilise a response to protect workers’ rights. Some trade union leaders chose to shift focus from planning large strike activities to engaging in electoral politics by creating a political party rooted in the working class. The establishment of a Labour Party (Partai Buruh (PB)) is an important step in the right direction for advancing the working class movement of Indonesia. However, the current leadership of the Partai Buruh (PB) do not possess the clarity to link their political work with grassroots movement on the ground.

Said Iqbal, the leader of Partai Buruh and the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions (KSPI), inaccurately stated that industrial actions like strikes and protests will not effectively defeat the Omnibus Law, emphasising that electoral politics is the sole viable approach. By reiterating these unverified reasons, he had mostly avoided organising any large-scale mobilisation of the workers for any cause in recent years. Even when a section of trade unions went on strike last year to demand a minimum wage increase, Said Iqbal and the Labour Party did not directly participate, instead providing moral support from a distance.

This election cycle, the Partai Buruh filed the maximum number of 580 candidates for the House of Representatives (DPR). However, with 65% of all votes recorded, the party appears unlikely to meet the 4% barrier required to enter the DPR.

The Partai Buruh leadership ran primarily on the topic of repealing the Omnibus Law, ignoring the larger economic and social challenges confronting Indonesians. They also lacked a viable economic alternative to neoliberal policies, as well as a popular programme. Demands such as a living wage for workers, free education, free healthcare, free access to public infrastructure and utilities, increased taxation on the wealthy, democratisation of trade unions, and so on might have drawn a large number of votes from diverse backgrounds.

Furthermore, the political bent of some of the PB leaders does not inspire confidence among the populace. The party’s major affiliate, the KSPI, has senior members in other bourgeois parties and has not fully supported the PB since its creation. Said Iqbal, the PB leader, was once a member of the bourgeois Prosperous Justice Party and officially supported Prabowo in the 2019 presidential election.

Partai Buruh, which consists of 11 distinct labour organisations, includes some of the more militant organisations with left-wing tendencies, such as the Confederation of Labour Associations (KPBI). However, the Partai Buruh’s main leadership are currently bureaucrats who are reluctant to promote the working class struggle in a serious way. They are attempting to restrict the movement within electoral politics and prevent any attempts by workers to build a grassroots fightback.

Partai Buruh has the potential to become a true platform for working-class political leadership, but it has not reached that point yet. This could change if in the course of the struggle, a more militant and politically clear leadership assumes control of the party. At this point, it would be a mistake for the working class movement and Indonesian youth to rely on the PB’s leadership to bring about genuine change.

For a mass workers’ party and fight for socialism

The coming Indonesian administration is guaranteed to continue on the existing path established by past governments to accommodate capitalist exploitation of Indonesian resources and labour power. It will exacerbate the economic burden of the poor and reduce the youth’s prospects for a decent level of living. Given the circumstances, none of the current political organisations are willing to challenge the country’s political and economic elites and demand a more equitable share for the struggling masses. Given the lack of clarity in their leadership, the newly established Labour Party is currently incapable of posing a challenge to the existing bourgeois political parties.

The immediate task for Indonesian youth and the working class at this time is to reach out to the 2.5 million organised and 100 million unorganised labour force in Indonesia in order to build a genuine mass workers party with the clear goal of opposing the capitalist neoliberal policies and establishing the working class’s political dominance. The mass workers’ party must have both a strong social foundation and political clarity to guide its endeavours.

The political progress of the working class requires courageous efforts such as general strikes and grassroots movements to lead the masses in seizing state power from the billionaires. The leadership of the mass workers’ party must organise campaigns for a wide range of economic and social demands affecting the masses. Furthermore, a clear socialist programme – democratic ownership of centres of production by the working class, a democratic society with mass participation in politics, and equal wealth distribution – should be proposed as a viable alternative to the current capitalist elite dictatorship.

A strong leadership with a vision of a socialist future will inspire and unite the masses under the banner of solidarity and a commitment to build a better future for coming generations. An emergence of a strong militant working class mass party in Indonesia with a clear socialist programme will inspire the working class of the entire Southeast Asia region to rise and wage a political battle against their oppressors.


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March 2024