Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto sees smooth transition to presidency but calls democracy ‘messy’

Arie Firdaus and Tria Dianti
Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto sees smooth transition to presidency but calls democracy ‘messy’ Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles (not pictured) hold a joint press conference after their meeting at the Defense Ministry in Jakarta, Feb. 23, 2024.
[Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Prabowo Subianto, who is set to become Indonesia’s next leader, said Tuesday that he expected a smooth handover of power from outgoing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo later this year.

Prabowo, a former army general with a controversial military past dating to the country’s authoritarian era, also called democracy very chaotic and expensive, but said Indonesians should be proud of their enthusiasm for participating in democratic processes.

Prabowo, who twice before had contested the presidential polls and lost, was third-time lucky, winning the Feb. 14 presidential election by a landslide, unofficial vote counts showed. He will be inaugurated on Oct. 20, when Jokowi makes way for him after a decade as president.

“[I] think the transition will be very smooth because, as you know, of the three candidates, my team is very open that we say that we are part of Jokowi’s team,” he said in an address in English to an investment forum. 

“In the military, if your azimuth when you navigate the difficult terrain is bringing you closer and closer to your objective, why take a risk in changing,” he added. 

Prabowo had pledged to continue Jokowi’s policies long before his win and he reiterated that promise on Tuesday as he praised the outgoing president, saying he helped the poor and controlled inflation.

The two were once bitter rivals. Both times Prabowo lost the presidential election, in 2019 and 2014, it was to Jokowi.

That rivalry ended after Jokowi, in a surprising move, invited Prabowo to join his cabinet as defense minister in 2019.

In the run-up to the 2024 election, Prabowo picked Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his running mate. That was only possible, though, after a Constitutional Court ruling in October paved the way for the Widodo scion to be able to contest for the post.

The ruling prompted loud accusations of nepotism and political manipulation, because the court was at the time led by Jokowi’s brother-in-law.

For critics who had accused Jokowi of presiding over a trend of democratic backsliding, this development was only more proof they were right.

Indonesia had been praised for its successful transition from authoritarian rule under former dictator Suharto, who was ousted in 1998, to a vibrant democracy that was on the way to holding its sixth (since 1999) peaceful and competitive legislative election in February 2024.

However, from the constitutional court decision to Prabowo’s all-but-assured ascension to power, this election has not been without controversy.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) walks with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is set to succeed him, after the inauguration of the National Defense Central Hospital in Jakarta, Feb. 19, 2024. [Via Instagram/@prabowo]

Prabowo’s defeated rivals, former Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan and former Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo, have challenged the results and said they would cooperate for a parliamentary inquiry, citing abuse of state resources to influence the election, intimidation and vote-buying.

Two watchdog groups recently called last month’s elections the worst since the country’s democratic transition in 1998. They added the charges of favoritism, lack of transparency in campaign financing and outright fraud to the accusations leveled by Anies and Ganjar.

According to Wasisto Rahardjo Djati, a political researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), the success of Prabowo’s presidency may hinge on the ongoing relationship between Prabowo and Jokowi.

“If Prabowo remains committed to continuing Jokowi’s programs, the transition will likely proceed smoothly,” Wasisto stated. 

However, he warned that a departure from this commitment could lead to a rift similar to that between Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Sara Duterte, the daughter of former president Rodrigo Duterte. 

Marcos Jr. ran with Sara Duterte as his running mate in his successful bid for the presidency in 2022. However, the alliance between the two families soon soured as Marcos Jr. deviated from some of Duterte’s policies, including the former leader’s stance towards China. 

‘We must clean up our act’

Dominique Nicky Fahrizal, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), highlighted the importance of managing key ministerial appointments to ensure continuity. 

“If key ministers from the current government join Prabowo’s cabinet, the transition of Jokowi’s programs could be effectively carried forward,” he told BenarNews.

Prabowo in his address on Tuesday acknowledged there was “a lot of room for improvement” in  Indonesia’s democracy, but added that it was a vibrant and resilient one.

“Let me testify that democracy is really very, very tiring; democracy is very, very messy; democracy is very, very costly, and we are still not satisfied with our democracy,” he said at the investment forum. 

Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of more than 270 million people, is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and its third-largest democracy.

Turning to the subject of the economy during his speech on Tuesday, Prabowo said he was optimistic that Indonesia could achieve 8% growth in the next four or five years, surpassing the average of 5% in the past decade.

He said he was committed to increasing foreign and domestic investment, and he acknowledged that certain practices needed to change to make investing in Indonesia an attractive proposition.

“I am of the opinion that we must clean up our act to improve efficiency, to mitigate, if possible, eliminate, but at least mitigate corrupt practices, enforce the law, assure all investors, foreign and domestic, they will get the best protection and the best treatment under the law,” he said.


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