Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Wednesday named his election rival Prabowo Subianto, a former general who has faced accusations of human rights abuses, as his defense minister, angering rights activists as he unveiled his second-term cabinet.
Jokowi, 58, said Prabowo “knows more than I do” as he announced that he had tapped the opposition leader for one of the country’s most powerful posts.
“I believe I don’t have to tell him about his job,” the president told reporters at the Merdeka Palace, referring to Prabowo.
Gen. Tito Karnavian, who this week resigned as the chief of the national police, was named minister of home affairs, while a former deputy military chief, Fachrul Razi, will serve as religious affairs minister.
Other appointees to the 34-member cabinet are technocrats and entrepreneurs, including former DC United football club owner Erick Thohir, who was named minister of state-owned enterprises, and Nadiem Makarim, founder of the country’s home-grown taxi hailing app Gojek, who will lead the education and culture ministry.
“My message to the cabinet ministers: Don’t get involved in corruption!” Jokowi said.
“We all have to work hard, work smartly and work productively,” he said. “Those who are not serious, be careful, I’ll replace them mid-way.”
Following his campaign for clean government, Jokowi was sworn in Sunday as president for a second five-year term after defeating Prabowo, his sole challenger in April’s bitterly fought election.
The president’s announcement came a month after thousands of students took to the streets and rallied against new bills they said would weaken the government’s Corruption Eradication Commission. The commission has gained public respect in recent years because of the arrests of hundreds of government officials.
Last year, Transparency International ranked Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s largest economy – 89th of 175 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.
Rights activists criticized Jokowi’s appointment of Prabowo, who was dismissed from the military over accusations that he ordered the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists during the last days of President Suharto’s rule in 1998.
As a commanding officer of the Kopassus special forces, Prabowo is alleged to have led a massacre in 1983 as part of a counter-insurgency operation in East Timor in which more than 300 people were killed, according to multiple sources.
“Actually, it’s hardly surprising. Both Jokowi and Prabowo pay little attention to human rights,” said Haris Azhar, founder of human rights group Lokataru.
A group of pro-Jokowi volunteers, called Projo, said they were disappointed with Prabowo’s appointment.
“The rival camp which was defeated by people who are opposed to intolerance, anti-democracy and human rights violations has ironically been given respected positions in the cabinet,” Projo secretary general Handoko told reporters.
Jokowi’s newly appointed presidential spokesman, Fadjroel Rachman, declined to comment on the decision to include Prabowo in the cabinet.
Among “most polarizing generals”
“Prabowo is perhaps one of the most polarizing generals since maybe [former military chief] Benny Moerdani in the 1980s,” Evan Laksmana, a defense analyst at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told BenarNews.
“As such, Prabowo is a huge gambit [for Jokowi],” he said. “It’s likely that his tenure could be
really good or really bad.
“On the defense side, too many high-stake question marks. I hope Jokowi’s gambit pays off, otherwise we'll have to pick up the tab down the line,” he said.
Jokowi also appointed Prabowo’s aide at Gerindra, Edhy Prabowo, as fisheries and marine resources minister.
Pledging to champion democracy and bolder action against corruption, Jokowi won April’s presidential election with 55 percent of votes, compared to 53 percent in 2014. Prabowo was his rival both times.
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 he 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.
Meanwhile, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Reform Institute (ICJR), Anggara, criticized the president’s decision to retain Yasonna Laoly as justice and human rights minister.
The ministry has been denounced for allegedly not taking adequate public consultation on controversial bills, including one of the revisions to the criminal code, which has been bashed for provisions that could threaten freedom of expression.
“The public has the right to know because it is the people who will be impacted by new regulations. The problem is that until now the process has not been transparent,” Anggara told BenarNews.
Student-led nationwide protests, sometimes violent, broke out last month in response to the 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.
Analyst praises picks
Ridlwan Habib, a terrorism analyst at the University of Indonesia, said Fachrul Razi, who served as deputy commander of the armed forces between 1999 and 2000, could strengthen the fight against extremism in his new role as religious affairs minister.
“Unlike [his predecessor] Lukman Hakim, who could not approach organizations that are considered hardline, Fachrul Razi can embrace hardline clerics. I think it’s very good,” he told BenarNews.
He said that Tito, who once headed the police anti-terrorism unit, was in the position to tackle extremism in the civil service as the minister of home affairs.
Fachrul Razi, speaking after being sworn in, vowed to tackle religious extremism in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
“It happens that I like reading religious books and I’m of the view that people who subscribe to radical Islam interpret the religion wrongly,” he told reporters.
“Islam spreads compassion for all, so making enemies, not to mention killing many people, is clearly wrong,” he said.
But Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organization, questioned Jokowi’s decision not to appoint an Islamic scholar to the post, which traditionally has been held by an NU member.
“I and other members of the boards have received many questions regarding the religious affairs minister,” Robikin Emhas, NU’s executive director, told BenarNews.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.