Tens of thousands of young Indonesians screamed with joy as presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto entered a packed stadium in the capital Jakarta for a final campaign rally on Saturday.
They screamed even louder when the former commander of the country’s feared special forces blew air kisses and danced on stage. Within minutes, Prabowo’s moves were posted all over social media with hashtags such as “gemoy” — cute in Bahasa Indonesian.
The reaction illustrates the remarkable transformation of the fiery former general, who was discharged from the Indonesian military for the alleged abduction of democracy activists and shunned by the US for two decades, but is now the favourite to lead the world’s third-most populous democracy.
Prabowo’s rebranding as a dancing grandpa, along with the backing of his former foe and current president Joko Widodo, have taken him to the cusp of the presidency after a long quest.
“Prabowo is running a very different and effective campaign. It’s a lot less angry and much more youth-oriented. That’s why the dancing part is very dominant in this campaign season,” said Kennedy Muslim, an analyst at pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia.
More than 204mn Indonesians, about half of them younger than 40, will vote for the archipelago’s next president on February 14. The latest polls suggest Prabowo has a chance of winning the 50 per cent of votes needed to avoid the election going to a second round in June.
Prabowo, the oldest of the three contenders, dominates popular social media platforms such as TikTok, while smiling cartoon versions of the former general and Gibran Rakabuming Raka, his 36-year-old running mate and Widodo’s son, adorn campaign posters.
The campaign is an effort to soften the image of Prabowo, portrayed as a firebrand nationalist and Islamist in previous presidential bids, and counter concerns about his past as a military officer during the three-decade rule of late autocrat Suharto, a period marked by corruption and democratic backsliding.
Prabowo, who was Suharto’s son-in-law, is accused by rights groups of being involved in the killing of civilians as a young officer in the 1980s in East Timor, which was then fighting Indonesian occupation. As a general in 1998, he was ejected from the military after being accused of ordering the kidnapping of more than two dozen pro-democracy activists in Jakarta, many of whom are feared dead. Prabowo has always denied the allegations.
Following the accusations, the former general was prohibited from entering the US for 20 years, even to attend his son’s graduation. But after he was appointed defence minister by Widodo in 2019, he was invited to meet senior officials at the Pentagon.
For the many Indonesians who are too young to remember the Suharto era or the protests that brought an end to his 32-year rule in 1998, however, the allegations matter little.
“The past is in the past. His past self is probably not who he is today. What’s the harm in giving him a chance because we can give someone power and see his true self,” said 18-year-old Keane Ahmed, a first-time voter who attended Prabowo’s final rally.
Desi, another first-time voter, said she believed a TikTok video that claimed the allegations against Prabowo were “a misunderstanding”. She supports him because of his proposal for free meals for students across the country. “He is also cute,” she said.
Opinion polls released this month gave Prabowo a solid 25 to 30-point lead over the other two contenders, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo. According to pollster Indikator, Prabowo’s support from those younger than 42 is more than 60 per cent, while his campaign has also boosted his popularity among women.
The other big reason for Prabowo’s appeal is his promise to continue the still-popular Widodo policies, including fomenting investment in industries such as nickel processing that have grown exponentially.
“What has really helped is Jokowi and Prabowo working together, and the presence of Gibran, which has given new hope for young Indonesians,” said Erick Thohir, a minister in Widodo’s cabinet who has been campaigning for Prabowo. “The reason we are all here is because of continuity and stability.”
Prabowo has also vowed to lift economic growth from 5 per cent to 8 per cent and into the “double digits”. While many economists say that is unrealistic, even for a country whose economic prospects have been redefined in the past decade by Widodo’s push towards exports-oriented industries, the goal has been welcomed by voters.
“Indonesians want to see their country prosper and become an economic superpower. They want a leader like Prabowo with that kind of view,” said Achmad Sukarsono, an associate director at consultancy Control Risks.
“This is the most opportune time for Prabowo to rise. The pendulum is swinging back towards the establishment.”
Prabowo and his family have been entrenched in Indonesia’s politics for decades. His grandfather was an important figure in Indonesia’s independence movement, while his father was a prominent economist who served in Suharto’s cabinet.
Prabowo was educated in the US, UK and Switzerland, and speaks fluent English, French and German. His wealth was valued at Rp2tn ($128mn) as of 2022, according to Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency, making him the richest of the three candidates.
He first ran for the presidency in 2014, losing to Widodo, who swept into power as an anti-establishment outsider. Five years later, Prabowo lost again, after a polarising campaign.
But following his re-election, Widodo appointed Prabowo as defence minister. It made the former general more widely accepted and paved the way for him to try to succeed Widodo, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
Political commentators describe a relationship of mutual convenience between the two men, with Prabowo riding on Widodo’s popularity while the outgoing president attempts to build his own political dynasty and exert influence through his son after his term ends.
Gibran was allowed on the presidential ticket after a ruling last year by the constitutional court, which was then led by Widodo’s brother-in-law. Critics say Gibran’s nomination is an attempt by the president to retain control, though Widodo has denied such allegations.
The blowback against Widodo has been growing in the run-up to the election. This month a group of academics condemned the president for orchestrating his son’s nomination and undermining democracy. Prabowo’s opponents have alleged the use of state machinery to deny them approval for some campaign events.
Widodo has not explicitly endorsed Prabowo but has defended his tacit endorsement by saying that Indonesian law allows presidents to campaign.
Prabowo’s human rights record, and his rise with Widodo’s support, presents a gloomy outlook for the country’s democracy, said Hurriyah, director of the Centre for Political Studies in the University of Indonesia, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
“The intimidation, state mobilisation and manipulation of the election and electoral process is really worrying,” she said.
Thohir, the cabinet minister campaigning for Prabowo, said there were enough checks and balances in Indonesia to prevent a decline in democratic principles. “I don’t think there will be a setback [under Prabowo],” he said.
Additional reporting by Diana Mariska in Jakarta