Notwithstanding his high popularity in recent polls, Prabowo Subianto’s uneven track record as defence minister begs more scrutiny from Indonesian voters before they head to the presidential vote next February.
On 2 September 2023, following the nomination of its chairman Muhaimin Iskandar as the running mate of 2024 presidential prospect Anies Baswedan, the National Awakening Party (PKB) left the coalition supporting Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto. With PKB’s departure, the 71-year-old Prabowo must now depend on the support of his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the Golkar Party, and the National Mandate Party (PAN) to win the 2024 election.
However, PKB’s departure will not likely put a dent in Prabowo’s popularity. Several surveys have indicated that he is the most popular candidate compared to the other two main contenders, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan.
2024 will mark the fourth time that Prabowo runs as either a presidential or vice-presidential candidate. The fourth time could well be the charm for Prabowo, who enjoys tremendous media exposure, partly given his ministerial position which allows him to travel across the archipelago and make trips to see his foreign counterparts. Compared to Ganjar, who is supported by the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and Anies, backed by PKB and the first to announce his choice for running mate, Prabowo arguably attracts both supporters and detractors of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi). Jokowi’s unconcealed chumminess with Prabowo might win votes from diehard Widodo supporters while the less conservative Muslims among the president’s detractors might find Prabowo a safer bet than Anies, who cannot shake off the perception that he is closer to ultra-conservatives.
Prabowo is popular among young voters, due to his positive social media image. A recent survey by Kompas indicated that 32.7 per cent of Gen Z respondents (aged 17-26 years) and 23.9 per cent of Gen Y ones (aged 27-41 years) prefer Prabowo. This, observers have indicated, is possibly because these younger respondents did not experience Indonesia’s pre-reformasi period. In fact, Indonesians’ positive sentiment towards strongman leaders has increased since 2021 due to the prestige of the military and the perception that civilian politicians are weak.
Aside from Prabowo’s roles under the New Order regime – where he led Kopassus, Indonesia’s special forces command, and was linked to cases of human rights abuses – and his performance as a populist politician in post-reformasi, little has been written about his performance as defense minister under Jokowi. What is Prabowo’s track record on this prominent portfolio and is he in sync with the administration’s vision?
The analysis reveals that despite Prabowo’s current popularity, his performance and policies as defence minister have not always been in sync with the administration’s.
In October 2019, after a gravely polarised presidential election, Jokowi’s decision to appoint Prabowo as defence minister was snubbed by many. Among their concerns were the Ministry of Defence’s (Kemhan) US$8 billion budget, the largest allocation of all the ministries, and Prabowo’s poor record on human rights. Critics lamented Prabowo’s appointment as ministry officials of two former members of the notorious Rose Team (a unit under his Kopassus) who were involved in the disappearance of activists in the 1990s. Prabowo maintained that the two individuals were “the best soldiers”, who had already been tried for their deeds, and that the political climate had changed.
Human rights aside, the defence ministry’s military modernisation process has attracted scrutiny and criticism. As one commentator has said, Indonesia needs more than just better equipment, to include improvements in personnel and overall assessment and planning. In April 2021, Indonesia’s KRI Nanggala 402, a German-made submarine produced in the late 1970s, sank in the waters off Bali and split into three parts on the seabed, taking the lives of its 53 crew. The incident highlighted the TNI’s challenges and serious budget constraints on its modernisation efforts.
As defence minister, Prabowo has addressed the need to enhance the Indonesian armed forces (TNI)’s surveillance capabilities by acquiring 42 Dassault Rafale fighter jets and advancing collaborations with various foreign counterparts to strengthen Indonesia’s military acquisitions programme. For instance, Indonesia and France have signed an MoU on technology transfer.
However, some of the latest military purchases seem misguided or haphazard. In June 2023, the defence ministry purchased 12 Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets from Qatar for US$792 million. Observers deemed this controversial: in 2009, then Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono had declined the offer to purchase these aircraft. Although the price was within his ministry’s budget, Indonesia could not cover the operational costs.
On his part, Prabowo has reasoned that the second-hand Mirage jets would be used to train TNI-AU (air force) pilots, while they waited for their French-made new Rafale fighter jets to arrive by January 2026. This is partly to meet Indonesia’s Minimum Essential Force (MEF) requirements, originally targeted for 2024. Still, security analyst Beni Sukadis deemed the Mirage purchase hasty: the jets are old and possibly capable of operating only for ten to 15 more years. Some of the Mirage spare parts are reportedly no longer produced.
Furthermore, Prabowo’s ministry’s proposals at times appear incompatible with the central government’s. For instance, Prabowo’s plan to create 18 new Regional Military Commands (Kodam) was deemed as competing with the national police and even unnecessary, given that Indonesia is not in a state of war.
Prabowo’s most provocative idea was probably the one he announced at Singapore’s June 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue. Out of the blue, he proposed a Russia-Ukraine “peace plan” involving a ceasefire and the creation of a demilitarised zone, adding that both sides should withdraw 15 kilometres from their forward positions. Unsurprisingly, his fellow panellists, the European Union’s top diplomat Joseph Borrel, European Parliament member Reinhard Bütikofer and Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov strongly criticised the proposal, with Reznikov calling it “a Russian plan”.
Prabowo’s headscratching proposal contradicted Indonesia’s official stance. Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) even dubbed it detrimental to Indonesia’s foreign policy. Prabowo ostensibly did not have either President Widodo or Indonesia’s foreign ministry’s sanction for his comments, which seemed to be geared at a domestic audience. Even now, many Indonesians admire Russia, despite Indonesia supporting the UN Resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion in February 2022 of Ukraine.
The analysis reveals that despite Prabowo’s current popularity, his performance and policies as defence minister have not always been in sync with the administration’s. His actions might reflect Prabowo’s preference for projecting an image of strength for Indonesia if he becomes president, but at what cost? It remains to be seen whether the Indonesian voters will more carefully scrutinise the presidential candidates’ track records beyond popularity polls.
Aswin Lin is a Ph.D. candidate at the International Doctoral Program in Asia-Pacific Studies (IDAS), at the National Chengchi University, Taiwan.
Deasy Simandjuntak is Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and an Assistant Professor at National Chengchi University, Taiwan.