Prabowo’s political trajectory is a case study of resilience and reinvention. Throughout his long career he has faced accusations of war crimes, incompetence and even treason – and yet his detractors have never managed to end his political influence.
This is due, in part, to Prabowo’s ability to repeatedly adapt his image to reflect Indonesia’s ever-shifting socio-political landscape, playing a range of different roles at different times, from military strongman, to protector of Islamic values, and even global peacemaker.
But as the 2024 election approaches, it is his most recent persona – that of an adorable grandpa for Indonesia’s Generation Z and millennial voters – that could be his most savvy. If he can keep the conversation light-hearted, Indonesia’s youngsters might overlook his dark past.
A history of conflict and controversy
Prabowo was born into Indonesia’s political elite, and his family claim descent from Prince Diponegoro, the leader of the 19th century Java War rebellion against Dutch rule.
Prabowo’s grandfather, Margono Djojohadikusomo, was an influential nationalist figure around the time of Indonesian independence and founded Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI) in 1946. In the late 1950s, the young Prabowo was forced to flee Indonesia when his father, Soemitro Djojohadikusumo, was embroiled in a rebellion against Indonesia’s first president Soekarno, although Soemitro later became a powerful trade and finance minister under Soeharto.
Prabowo enrolled at Indonesia’s national military academy in 1970 and quickly rose through the ranks, assisted by his marriage to President Soeharto’s second daughter, Titiek. However, Prabowo’s past – particularly his military career – is riddled with controversies and allegations of human rights violations. His alleged involvement in atrocities in East Timor and Papua, as well as the notorious abduction and torture of pro-democracy activists in 1997, continue to overshadow his political legitimacy.
In August 1998, an army Officers’ Honour Council substantiated some claims against Prabowo, culminating in a secret document that detailed his discharge from military service for various transgressions. Notably, his role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists by the Mawar (Rose) Task Unit underlined a disturbing disregard for civil liberties and democratic principles.
However, Prabowo carried his military strongman image into his political career, establishing the right-wing nationalist party Gerindra – the Greater Indonesia Movement – in 2008. He has since competed in, and lost, every presidential election since – first as the running mate of Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2009, then as a direct presidential challenger to Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2014 and 2019.
Tensions soared in 2019 election when Prabowo aligned himself with radical Muslim voters and then unsuccessfully disputed the election result, accusing Jokowi of cheating. At this point, his career seemed ruined – but then he received an unexpected lifeline.
An unlikely partnership
Few saw it coming when Jokowi welcomed Prabowo into has cabinet shortly after the election in 2019 but the two men soon established a surprisingly amicable working relationship.
Despite earlier tensions, Prabowo and Jokowi found common ground in a nationalist vision that emphasised sovereignty, defence, food security and energy security. Perhaps learning from Jokowi, he has since sought to shed his strong man image – toning down his religious rhetoric and even proposing a Russia-Ukraine peace plan.
But Prabowo’s time as minister of defence has not been without controversy. The recent failure of the food estate project in Central Kalimantan, spread over 31,719 hectares, has drawn criticism from Greenpeace. Overseen by Prabowo as the Minister of Defence, the project failed to yield satisfactory results despite extensive deforestation and friction with the local indigenous Dayak community.
The procurement of defence equipment, sourced with foreign loans, has also substantially increased under his leadership, reaching over US $4 billion. This escalation in defence expenditure in the lead-up to the presidential election in 2024 has raised public suspicions about whether some the funds might potentially be diverted for electoral advantage.
In any case, as the sun sets on Jokowi’s administration, he is now counting on Prabowo to carry forward his plans for a political dynasty and, with it, continued influence. Their ‘odd couple’ partnership culminated in the appointment of Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as Prabowo’s running mate in October.
This was made possible by a controversial Constitutional Court ruling involving Gibran’s uncle, Anwar Usman, the Chief Justice of that court, that lowered the age limit for certain vice-presidential candidates. Usman has since been removed as Chief Justice for an unethical conflict of interest in that case, but the decision stands.
A new benign grandpa persona
Since May this year, many pundits have observed the emergence of a new gemoy campaign strategy, an Indonesian term used to describe something as adorable or endearing. ‘Gemoy Prabowo’ has now been picked up by the mass media and is trending on social media.
This has been widely interpreted as a calculated move to soften the image of a candidate otherwise known for his stern military background. Prabowo’s recent shift in political communication, embodied in a kind of benign grandpa persona, is aimed at endearing himself to Generation Z and millennials, who will comprise a majority of voters in 2024.
This approach conforms to a broader trend in Southeast Asia, where political figures compete on charm and personality rather than substantive policy discourse. This campaign strategy proved a winning strategy for Bongbong Marcos in the Philippines presidential election – it may well work for Prabowo too.
There’s something mildly farcical about the new Gemoy Prabowo campaign persona, reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s foray into Christmas comedies. And yet it appears to be resonating in the polls. Since the gemoy rebrand, and the appointment of Gibran as his running mate, Prabowo has now opened up a clear lead over his nearest rival, Ganjar Pranowo.
But if the first debate is anything to go by, it will not be easy for him to keep up the act. He tried to lighten the mood with dancing and theatrics. And he appeared quite restrained under attack from Anies Baswedan over the death of a supporter during the 2019 election riots. But on several occasions he was unable to mask his temper. A question from Ganjar Pranowo about past human rights violations made Prabowo visibly upset, suggesting his inner strongman will be difficult to conceal.
What would a Prabowo victory mean for Indonesia?
The gemoy image is, of course, a superficial veneer, distracting from substantive evaluation of Prabowo’s policies and track record.
National leadership demands an ability to set a clear vision, grasp complex issues and make tough decisions that benefit the public – skills neither Prabowo or Gibran have demonstrated yet. In fact, Gibran is notable for his persistent avoidance of media questions with vague generic responses like ‘just live’ or ‘don’t’ need to respond’. This is not just passivity, but a strategic withdrawal from the critical dialogues that shape a democracy.
However, many think Jokowi – who still enjoys popularity rankings around 80% but is constitutionally barred from third term – will want to continue to steer the ship from behind the scenes. This would please his many supporters, but sparks concerns about the government’s internal dynamics.
The ‘twin suns’ phenomenon, where two dominant political figures jostle for power, certainly poses a risk of internal conflict. Navigating these complex dynamics will require political acumen and careful calibration. Jokowi actively resisted the meddling of former president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, once her endorsement helped him win office. There is reason to presume Prabowo will do the same if he wins. Perhaps at this point the familiar strongman of the past will return.