After the 2014 Presidential Election and the court process that followed, Prabowo Subianto appeared to have come undone. He had alienated many of his middle class voters with his tantrums and refusal to accept defeat graciously. Analysts everywhere breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that the world finally had the opportunity to see the true Prabowo on display – replete with angry outbursts, dummy-spits, an overblown sense of entitlement, and audacious disdain for democracy.
But what also became clear is that Prabowo Subianto is the figurehead for a vast, well run and powerful political machine. It is a machine that includes his party, Gerindra, and other members of the Red and White Coalition, which controls the majority of seats (63 per cent) in the House of Representatives (DPR). And it has been shown to have the wherewithal to rebuild and re-energise its leader and his political project.
Even as Prabowo ranted and called in the lawyers, his political strategists (not least his brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo) were plotting a way forward. Their first step was in September 2014, in the dying days of the last group of lawmakers’ five year terms in the DPR. Red and White Coalition legislators used their majority to introduce a bill eliminating direct elections for local government leaders. The bill was passed by the coalition-dominated legislature and looked like being law until outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono finally intervened and reversed the decision. All acknowledged that this was an early shot across Jokowi’s bows by Prabowo’s opposition coalition.
When new lawmakers were installed in October 2014, the Red and White Coalition followed up with another significant win, sweeping the pool of leadership positions in the DPR, including the speaker and deputy speaker positions, as well as the chairs of most House committees. Outraged, Joko Widodo’s coalition set up an alternative leadership group, effectively rendering the legislature unable to function. Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), also maintained a hard-line stance in the DPR.
Despite this, Prabowo and the Red and White Coalition had the government where they wanted it. In November, Jokowi was forced to finally act to end the stalemate between the two coalitions. In what was to be the first of several moves to confer with his former rival, the president called a meeting with Prabowo. The coalition leaders agreed to a “peace pact”, or rapprochement, which included handing over some heads of committee positions to Jokowi’s coalition.
Opposing Jokowi’s government, but not Jokowi
This triggered a series of such meetings between Prabowo and Jokowi over the past seven months, as the president has continued to struggle to assert his own authority and overcome forces within his own party. Unlike a system of adversarial politics, where the leader of the opposition is rarely seen to support his rival, Prabowo has positioned himself as a significant ally for Jokowi at key moments when he has faced resistance from within.
These moments have included Jokowi’s decision to withdraw the nomination of Budi Gunawan as police chief in late January, and recently, as he considers a cabinet reshuffle. As the analyst Pitan Daslani described it: “The more the PDI-P corners Joko, the better it is for Prabowo, who can use that momentum to draw his coalition closer to the president. This is quite normal in Indonesian politics, where there are no lasting friends or foes, only interests.”
This does not mean that the Red and White Coalition and Prabowo have taken a less oppositional position in the DPR. Indeed, this has been the preoccupation of Fadli Zon, Prabowo’s deputy in Gerindra and deputy speaker of the DPR. His targets have been the very members of the Jokowi cabinet whose futures the president is now weighing up, as the main game for the Red and White Coalition is to preserve its majority position in the DPR.
Saving the Red and White majority
In fact, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Prabowo and the Red and White Coalition. As early as October 2014, it was clear that both the Golkar Party and the United Development Party (PPP) were facing significant leadership battles and splits, with implications for the coalitions. Of particular importance to Prabowo was the fate of Aburizal Bakrie as leader of Golkar. Bakrie sided with the Red and White Coalition, while his opponent, Agung Laksono, did not. The implications were immense – the Red and White Coalition stood to lose its majority in the DPR.
Saving the coalition became a major preoccupation for Gerindra and Prabowo. This included a concerted campaign to undermine and destabilise the minister of justice and human rights, Yasonna Laoly, who formally approved the appointment of Agung as Golkar leader. Fadli Zon and Prabowo launched unrelenting attacks on the minister, culminating in a tweet by Prabowo from his personal account in May 2015, condemning “loud voices” undermining the government, which analysts unequivocally read as being directed at Laoly.
Gerindra and Prabowo have consistently championed a Bakrie-led Golkar (see below), and in recent months the two party leaders were regularly seen together in public, including at the wedding reception for Jokowi’s son, Gibran. In May, the Jakarta Administrative Court overturned Laoly’s decision and Bakrie retained the Golkar leadership.
— Partai Gerindra (@Gerindra) March 3, 2015
With the coalition majority safe again for now, Prabowo may now have room to refocus his strategy – or maybe not. Given how little we can glean about President Jokowi’s strategies for survival of his leadership and government, it is difficult to judge if Prabowo can count his closeness to Jokowi as anything more than as a foil to Megawati Soekarnoputri’s controlling hand. Be that as it may, these regular approaches from Jokowi send a strong signal to Prabowo’s patrons and supporters that there may be opportunities to extract concessions from the executive, thereby enhancing Prabowo’s power. And Prabowo does have something Jokowi needs – numbers in the DPR – and thus the capacity to implement his government’s policies. In the coming weeks we may see all this translate into ministerial positions for Red and White Coalition members as Jokowi continues to seek support to counter that of his own party, PDI-P. For his part, Prabowo insists that no such commitments have been made, and pledges faith in the ‘wisdom’ of the president. Nonetheless, Prabowo and his partners have positioned themselves very well, albeit in a largely passive role of waiting and watching, as the real game is played out in the palace.