Indonesian opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, a former general who has a checkered human rights record and was defeated in this year’s presidential election, on Monday said he accepted an offer to join President Joko Widodo’s government as a cabinet member.
Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was sworn in on Sunday as president for a second term after a fiercely fought election on April 17. He is expected to announce his new cabinet line-up on Wednesday.
Jokowi held separate meetings Monday with prospective ministers, including Prabowo, former campaign manager and businessman Erick Thohir, and Nadiem Makarim, founder of the country’s home-grown taxi hailing app Gojek.
“I have been asked to help strengthen the president’s cabinet,” Prabowo, a former Army special forces commander, told reporters after meeting with Jokowi.
“And I am allowed to announce that I have been asked to assist the president in the field of defense,” Prabowo said, adding that he expected the appointment to be formally announced on Wednesday. Local media reports had suggested he would be appointed defense minister.
“I will work hard to achieve the targets set [by the president],” Prabowo said in remarks published on the website on the Cabinet Secretariat.
Expectations that Prabowo would join the cabinet grew after he met with Jokowi at the presidential palace earlier this month.
Rights activists say Jokowi’s embrace of Prabowo, who was accused of responsibility for the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists in the last days of President Suharto’s rule in 1998, reflected his lack of commitment to human rights.
“Jokowi should not appoint people implicated [in human rights violations] to strategic positions,” Feri Kusuma, an activist for the human rights group Kontras, told BenarNews.
Ubaidillah Badrun, a political analyst at the Jakarta State Islamic University, said Prabowo’s decision to join the government showed that he was pragmatic and not ideological.
“By joining the government, Gerindra [Prabowo’s party] may think they’ll have better electoral chances in 2024,” he said, adding that Prabowo might try another run for president.
Jokowi won April’s presidential election with 55 percent of votes, compared to 53 percent in 2014. His rival was Prabowo in both elections.
In June, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected as baseless a petition by Prabowo, who alleged massive and systematic electoral fraud as he sought to overturn results of the last presidential polls in which the former general garnered 44.5 percent.
Prabowo, 68, is the former husband of Titiek Suharto, a daughter of the late President Suharto. They were married in 1983 and divorced in 1998. During his days as a top general, Prabowo was dogged by allegations of rights abuses, including during unrest that brought down his former father-in-law 21 years ago.
Political analysts: ‘Detrimental for our democracy’
Analysts said Jokowi could have difficulty managing a huge coalition during his second term in office, with Prabowo’s Gerindra party joining, leaving only Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) as the only opposition group.
“It would be detrimental for our democracy because there would not be a proper check and balance,” Ujang Komarudin, an Al Azhar Indonesia University political analyst, told BenarNews on Friday. “On the other hand, the coalition has the potential to stir an internal conflict since each party has its own vested interest.”
Surya Paloh, chairman of the Nasdem party and a member of the ruling coalition, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s not good if there are no checks and balances. If no one wants to, Nasdem can be the opposition,” Surya told Kompas TV news channel on Sunday.
In his inauguration speech on Sunday, Jokowi vowed to help usher in the country’s goal to be among the world’s five largest economies by 2045.
“However, all of that will not come easily,” he said. “We must work hard, and we must work fast. In a competitive world, we must continue to develop new ways and new values.”
He also promised to streamline the bureaucracy and boost human development in his second term.
“The task of our bureaucracy is to ensure that the benefits of government programs are felt by the public,” he said.
But the president has been criticized for failing to address the issue of corruption and human rights in his speech.
Student-led nationwide protests, sometimes violent, broke out last month in response to the passage of a bill governing the country’s anti-corruption agency and proposed changes to the criminal code that critics say would undermine freedoms and curtail anti-graft efforts.
Five civilians were killed after clashes between protesters and police in the city of Kendari on Sulawesi island and Jakarta.
In the restive easternmost region of Papua, protests and deadly rioting have left dozens of people dead amid growing calls for a referendum of self-determination for the mainly Melanesian region, where security forces have been accused of rights abuses.
The president has been criticized for the government’s handling of fires that have ravaged large swathes of forest and sent air pollution to hazardous levels on Sumatra and Borneo islands.
“The focus was more on the issues of development, efficiency and human resources. If we look closely, this is similar to the government of Suharto,” Firman Noor, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, told Tempo.co., referring to the late former president who ruled with an iron fist for 32 years before resigning under pressure in 1998.
“I think the president has not been sensitive and this is deplorable,” he said.
The students who have staged protests in major cities across the country have made a raft of demands, including an end to forests fires set for agricultural purposes and to “militarism” in the rebellious Papua region in eastern Indonesia, and freedom for political prisoners there.
They also urged lawmakers to withdraw problematic provisions in the criminal code bill, pass laws to reduce sexual violence and to protect domestic workers, and to hand down justice for perpetrators of past human rights abuses.
The bill to change the criminal code would have allowed a prison sentence of up to one year for consensual sex outside of marriage.
In addition, anyone convicted of insulting the president or vice president could face a prison term of up to 4½ years. Insulting the president and vice president was decriminalized by the Constitutional Court in 2016 following a legal challenge.