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HomeWorld HeadlinesWho is Prabowo Subianto, the former general who's Indonesia's next president?

Who is Prabowo Subianto, the former general who’s Indonesia’s next president?

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A wealthy ex-general with ties to both Indonesia’s popular outgoing president and its dictatorial past looks set to be its next leader. He’s promised to continue the outgoing president’s widely popular policies, but his human rights record has activists and some analysts concerned about the future of Indonesia’s democracy.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto presented himself as heir to the immensely popular President Joko Widodo, vowing to continue the modernization agenda that’s brought rapid growth and vaunted Indonesia into the ranks of middle-income countries.

“We should not be arrogant. We should not be proud,” Subianto said in a speech broadcast on national television from a sports stadium on the night of the election. “This victory must be a victory for all Indonesian people.”

But Subianto will enter office with unresolved questions about the costs of rapid growth for the environment and traditional communities, as well as his own links to torture, disappearances and other human rights abuses in the final years of the brutal Suharto dictatorship, which he served as a lieutenant general.

Other than promising continuity, Subianto has laid out few concrete plans, leaving observers uncertain about what his election will mean for the country’s growth and its still-maturing democracy.

A former rival of Widodo who lost two presidential races to him, Subianto embraced the popular leader to run as his heir, even choosing Widodo’s son as his running mate, a choice that ran up against constitutional age limits and has activists worried about an emerging political dynasty in the 25-year-old democracy.

Subianto’s win is not yet official. His two rivals have not yet conceded and the official results could take up to a month to be tabulated, but unofficial tallies showed him taking over 55% of the vote in a three-way race. Those counts, conducted by polling agencies and based on millions of ballots sampled from the across the country, have proved accurate in past elections.

Subianto was born in 1951 to one of Indonesia’s most powerful families, the third of four children. His father, Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was an influential politician, and a minister under Presidents Sukarno and Suharto.

Subianto’s father first worked for Sukarno, the leader of Indonesia’s quest for independence from the Dutch, as well as the first president. But Djojohadikusumo later turned against the leader and was forced into exile. Subianto spent most of his childhood overseas and speaks French, German, English and Dutch.

The family returned to Indonesia after General Suharto came to power in 1967 following a failed left-wing coup. Suharto brutally dealt with dissenters and was accused of stealing billions of dollars of state funds for himself, family and close associates. Suharto dismissed the allegations even after leaving office in 1998.

Subianto enrolled in Indonesia’s Military Academy in 1970, graduating in 1974 and serving in the military for nearly three decades. In 1976, Subianto joined the Indonesian National Army Special Force, called Kopassus, and was commander of a group that operated in what is now East Timor.

Human rights groups have claimed that Subianto was involved in a series of human rights violations in Timor-Leste in the 1980s and 90s, when Indonesia occupied the now-independent nation. Subianto has denied those allegations.

Subianto and other members of Kopassus were banned from traveling to the U.S. for years over the alleged human rights abuses they committed against the people of Timor-Leste. This ban lasted until 2020, when it was effectively lifted so he could visit the U.S. as Indonesia’s defense minister.

In 1983, he married Suharto’s daughter Siti Hediati Hariyadi.

More allegations of human rights abuses led to Subianto being forced out of the military. He was dishonorably discharged in 1998, after Kopassus soldiers kidnapped and tortured political opponents of Suharto, his then-father-in-law. Of 22 activists kidnapped that year, 13 remain missing. Several of his men were tried and convicted, but Subianto never faced trial.

He never commented on these accusations, but went into self-imposed exile in Jordan in 1998.

A number of former democracy activists have joined his campaign. Budiman Sudjatmiko, a politician who was a democracy activist in 1998, said that reconciliation is necessary to move forward. Sudjatmiko left the governing Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle to join Subianto’s campaign team.

Sudjatmiko said that international focus on Subianto’s human rights record was overblown. “Developed countries don’t like leaders from developing countries who are brave, firm and strategic,” he said.

Subianto returned from Jordan in 2008, and helped to found the Gerinda Party. He ran for the presidency twice, losing to Widodo both times. He refused to acknowledge the results at first, but accepted Widodo’s offer of the defense minister position in 2019, in a bid for unity.

In the most recent election, Subianto has respected the democratic process.

He has vowed to continue Widodo’s economic development plans, which capitalized on Indonesia’s abundant nickel, coal, oil and gas reserves and led Southeast Asia’s biggest economy through a decade of rapid growth and modernization that vastly expanded the country’s networks of roads and railways.

That includes includes the $30 billion project to build a new capitol city called Nusantara. A report by a coalition of NGOs claimed that Subianto’s family would profit from the Nusantata project, thanks to land and mining interests the family holds on East Kalimantan, the site of the new city. A member of the family denied the report’s allegations.

Subianto and his family also have business ties to Indonesia’s palm oil, coal and gas, mining, agriculture and fishery industries.

Subianto bristles at international criticism over human rights and other topics, but he’s expected to keep the country’s pragmatic approach to power politics. Under Widodo, Indonesia has strengthened defense ties with the U.S. while courting Chinese investment.

“Countries like us, countries as big as us, countries as rich as us, are always envied by other powers,” Subianto said during his victory speech after the election. “Therefore, we must be united. United and harmonious.”

The former rivals became tacit allies: Indonesian presidents don’t typically endorse candidates, but Subianto chose Widodo’s son, 36-year-old Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice presidential running mate, and Widodo coyly favored Subianto over the candidate of his own former party.

Raka is below the statutory minimum age of 40, but was allowed to run under an exception created by the Constitutional Court — then headed by Widodo’s brother-in-law — allowing current and former regional governors to run at age 35.

“This is the first time in Indonesian history that a sitting president has a relative who won in a presidential election,” said Yoes Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta. ”It could be said that the Jokowi political dynasty has been established at the highest level of Indonesian government.”

Subianto has also had close ties with hard-line Islamists, whom he used to undermine his opponents.

But for the 2024 election, Subianto projected a softer image that has resonated with Indonesia’s large youth population, including videos of him dancing on stage and ads showing digital anime-like renderings of him roller-skating through Jakarta’s streets.

“We will be the president and vice president and government for all Indonesian people,” said Subianto during his victory speech. “I will lead, with Gibran (to) protect and defend all Indonesian people, whatever tribe, whatever ethnic group, whatever race, religion, whatever social background. It will be our responsibility for all Indonesian people to safeguard their interests.”

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Associated Press writer Edna Tarigan contributed to this report.

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