Prabowo’s predictable pretence

A case of déjà vu for Indonesia

Thomas Paterson

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

26 June 2019

Though the Constitutional Court is likely to reject Prabowo Subianto’s appeal against the outcome of Indonesia’s recent election, the former general might still have a chance at salvaging his political career, Thomas Paterson writes.

Just as he did in 2014, Prabowo Subianto has once again refused to accept the Indonesian Election Commission’s (KPU) official verdict on the results of Indonesia’s presidential election.

The government clearly expected some unrest: it pre-emptively deployed more than 30,000 troops across Jakarta before the KPU had even made its announcement. Still, the ensuing violent protests resulted in nine deaths, over 700 injured, and Rp 465 million (US $32,000) worth of damage.

Prabowo alleged widespread election fraud even though the KPU’s results indicated incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo comfortably secured a second term in office, winning with 55.5 per cent of the vote to Prabowo’s 44.5 per cent. This equates to a margin of approximately 17 million votes.

Despite this, Prabowo has challenged the results in the Constitutional Court. Hearings started on 14 June, and the court has until 28 June to make a ruling – a decision that cannot be appealed.

More on this: Assessing the Jokowi Presidency

As was the case in 2014, analysts again predict that Prabowo’s challenge will most likely be rejected considering the noticeable flaws in his legal argument.

There has been some doubt expressed in the past about the impartiality of the court, but its independence has been recently reaffirmed. A study on the court’s performance between 2004 and 2016 found no statistical evidence of political influence.

In an effort to explain Prabowo’s inability to accept defeat, psychologists in Indonesia have suggested that the politician suffers from ‘delusions of grandeur’. Without a doubt, he is also trying to save face and secure political concessions from Jokowi.

Protesting Jokowi’s win is a useful tactic to increase one’s political leverage at a pivotal time when the president is considering the makeup of his next cabinet. Indeed, Prabowo may ultimately be successful in his quest for concessions, with Jokowi apparently having already offered ministerial positions in exchange for minimal opposition in the next parliament.

More on this: Indonesia's elections face a disinformation crisis

If Prabowo were to accept an offer and agree to support the government, this could give Jokowi a greater mandate and ability to act more decisively. It could open up the prospect of big-ticket reforms and of infrastructure spending to further boost economic development.

While the lofty – and so far illusive – goal of 7 per cent GDP growth is unlikely to become a reality for Jokowi, an absence of parliamentary roadblocks would at least allow him to shore up his political legacy in his second and final term as president.

If, however, Prabowo refuses an offer, as Mardani Ali Sera of the Prosperous Justice Party claims, he might find himself being abandoned by other parties in his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) coalition, such as the National Mandate Party and the Democratic Party.

If the ‘delusions of grandeur’ theory is to hold, there is surely the potential for Prabowo to try and hold onto the reins of Gerindra. This could keep open the option of a fifth bid for the presidency in 2024, once Jokowi’s two-term limit is up.

However, it is far more likely that Prabowo will pass on the mantle of Gerindra party leader to Sandiaga ‘Sandi’ Uno – his 2019 election running mate.

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In doing so, Prabowo would avoid further humiliation and solidify his legacy as the founder of a now strong political machine, which would be left in the capable hands of Sandi for a full-throttle tilt at the ultimate prize in 2024. Striking a deal would also mean avoiding further tough measures being deployed against him.

One of the reasons the latter outcome is much more likely is due to the inordinate amount of money Sandi spent on the 2019 election campaign.

Spending $100 million – a third of his own private wealth – just to secure the position of vice presidential candidate seems unlikely. On the other hand, paying for a practice run as Prabowo’s running mate, along with an agreement to take the helm of Gerindra in the event of a loss, is far more justifiable.

Everyone may well end up with the outcome they desire – apart from Prabowo and his desire to become president, of course. Although the oligarchic nature of Indonesian politics disallows for Prabowo to be completely dismissed, it is unlikely that another attempt would be successful.

If Jokowi strikes a deal with Prabowo, he might get the favourable parliamentary conditions for his legacy-building and achieve his pet projects and reform agenda. Prabowo could get a cosy ministerial position, which might include some bonus debt relief for his family businesses.

And for his small sum of $100 million, Sandi might have successfully bought himself a personal political machine to carry him to the next election, and maybe even on to becoming Indonesia’s eighth president in 2024.

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