Standing up through the sunroof of a van, Prabowo Subianto leans down to shake hands and accept cash – sometimes bags of it – from tens of thousands of cheering supporters clogging up roads and sitting on rooftops. All of them are trying to get a glimpse of the man they want to be Indonesia’s next president.
Donning a cowboy hat, the former Suharto-era general saluted the crowd as his car slowly snaked its way to a campaign stop in the capital of South Sumatra, a key battleground in the 17 April election. A similar scene broke out the next day in Solo, the hometown of President Joko Widodo, where a mix of young and old faces banged on his car and shouted his name with an air of fanaticism that has come to mark his campaign, now in its final days.
The enthusiasm on the campaign trail has Prabowo convinced that polls showing him losing for a second time to Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, must be wrong. Touting what he calls a “tsunami” of discontent, Prabowo has openly challenged supporters at rallies to reject the election result if the president wins a second five-year term.
“We will not accept an election that is stolen,” he said aboard his private plane between stops on the campaign. “If the powers that be want to cheat massively, they will be going against the will of the people.”
Over two days of interviews, Prabowo spoke about his ties with Islamic extremists, plans to review Chinese investments and his own relationship with Indonesia’s “one percent.” At times he was philosophical, quoting the Greek historian and general Thucydides, and at other times he became visibly irritated, if not angry.
While mainstream polls have Jokowi, 57, leading by a significant though narrowing margin, Prabowo, 67, has painted a vastly different picture of the electorate in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. His campaign has said internal numbers indicate he has a 24-point lead on Jokowi, and it’s already preparing a court challenge if the result doesn’t go its way.
Prabowo’s claims are setting the stage for a disputed election result that could lead to discord following the result. His camp has demonstrated it can mobilise tens of thousands of supporters, which could potentially hinder Jokowi’s ability to utilise any political capital generated by his re-election.
While it’s highly likely Jokowi will win next week, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election win have shown upsets do happen, according to Hugo Brennan, principal political analyst with Verisk Maplecroft. Every election since Indonesia introduced direct voting for president in 2004 has resulted in legal challenges, he added.
It “would be surprising if Prabowo didn’t cry foul and petition the Constitutional Court,” Brennan said. “The prospect of protesters taking to the streets to oppose the result can’t be entirely ruled out given the recent history of mass demonstrations in the capital.”
‘Dividing’ a nation
Jokowi’s campaign said he was on pace to defeat Prabowo by 20 percentage points, and called on him to send witnesses to polling booths if he’s concerned about cheating. Arya Sinulingga, a spokesman for Jokowi, said Prabowo was simply angry because he was set to lose again.
“Prabowo is already dividing our own nation by tricking some people into talking that there is fraud,” Sinulingga said. “This is not true at all.”
Prabowo has a long history with Jokowi, who started his political career as mayor of Solo. The former general helped bring Jokowi to Jakarta, where he successfully ran for governor. He used that victory as a springboard to the presidency in 2014, when he defeated Prabowo.
Now Prabowo is energised by an undercurrent of support that has resurrected a campaign that only weeks ago appeared like a lost cause. He made it a point to hold a big rally in Solo, where Jokowi won with 84 percent five years ago.
“It’s not Jokowi town,” Prabowo said. “It’s Indonesia.”
In the interviews, Prabowo declined to attack Jokowi specifically, saying only “many Indonesian leaders do not have a sense of justice, and no sense of honesty.”
Prabowo painted a picture of Indonesia as a land where “the corrupt elite” have failed to manage the economy. He cast himself as a Robin Hood-like figure, and listed the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa as a source of inspiration. He described himself as a social democrat, and above all a defender of the ideology called Pancasila that Indonesia’s founders implemented to unite the diverse archipelago.
Re-making his image is a complicated task for Prabowo. He has enormous wealth while at the same time preaches a level playing field and equal opportunity for everyone.
“I’m the first to admit that I am part of the one percent – I’m part of the elite," he said, acknowledging the contradiction.
"Everybody knows that, but I have a sense of responsibility,” he said, vowing to clamp down on the “daylight robbery” and corruption that he says has wrecked the economy. Growth is set for 5.3 percent this year, well short of the seven percent Jokowi had promised.
“It’s the same old story,” Prabowo said of the promises that Indonesia will one day be a great country. “It’s always somewhere, somewhere over the rainbow.”
Both Jokowi and Prabowo have built campaign platforms around the economy. Jokowi has vowed to create 100 million jobs over the next five years, while Prabowo has promised tax cuts and to revive Indonesia’s manufacturing industry.
Prabowo also said he would seek to make Indonesia respected on the international stage, and doubled down on a promise to defend the national interest when it comes to China-backed investments such as a high-speed rail line.
“If there are projects that we consider not in Indonesia’s interests, we will review all these projects,” Prabowo said. “We respect China, we respect their proper place in the world and we will be very open with them.”
When the conversation turns to religion in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, Prabowo gets particularly agitated. His critics say he helped stoke protests from hard-line Islamic groups during Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial race that led to the defeat of a Chinese Christian ally of Jokowi who was later jailed for insulting the Koran.
Prabowo rejects outright allegations he has benefited from a rise in religious conservatism, and at one point banged a plate on the table in his private jet.
“The narrative is Islamists, extremism, Prabowo using religion,” he said. “My identity is very clear. My mother was a Christian, all my family are Christian. My bodyguards and security: a lot of them are Christian.”
“I’ve had Christians and Hindus die under my command,” he said. He insists he believes in “an Indonesia that is multi-racial and multi-religious,” noting that Jokowi had appointed a top Muslim cleric as a nominee for vice president.
Over two days, the former special forces commander was at times angry and exasperated when questions touched on what appeared to be sore spots. “I get hurt and a bit irritated,” he said. But he was overwhelmingly good-natured, joking and laughing, and “deeply touched” by the response from his supporters.
Prabowo is now banking on a groundswell of support to carry him to victory. His nephew Aryo Djojohadikusumo, who is serving as the campaign’s logistics director, said five years ago they could mobilize only a third of the crowds they see now. “It’s a wave,” he said.
Asked in the interview if he would keep promises to crack down on corruption if he takes power, Prabowo becomes irritated again.
“Ask the people,” he said. “I’m somebody who keeps his word.” - Bloomberg