Prabowo at Abdurrahman Wahid's grave alongside NU religious leaders, at Pondok Pesantren Tebuireng, East Java, on 22 May 2023. (Photo: Prabowo Subianto / Facebook)

Prabowo at Abdurrahman Wahid's grave alongside NU religious leaders, at Pondok Pesantren Tebuireng, East Java, on 22 May 2023. (Photo: Prabowo Subianto / Facebook)

Prabowo’s Shifting Strategy on Indonesian Muslim Voters


It is too early to tell if third-time presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s seeming moderate shift in campaign strategy and tone will bear fruit in 2024. But no harm in trying.

Prabowo is now seen as a strong competitor to Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo (nominee of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P). Recent surveys by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI), Saiful Muzani Research Consulting (SMRC), and Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI-Denny JA) indicate that Prabowo is leading in electability in comparison with Ganjar and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. The research and development division (Litbang Kompas) of the national daily Kompas’ survey showed that Prabowo’s electability was higher whether he faced Ganjar or Anies head-to-head. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Selected electability surveys’ key results, Indonesia, April – May 2023

CandidateResult (Rank)PollsterPeriod of survey
Prabowo Subianto33.1% (1)Lembaga Survei Indonesia, LSI    12-17 April
Ganjar Pranowo31.8% (2)
Anies Baswedan25.3% (3)
Prabowo Subianto34.5% (1)Saiful Muzani Research Consulting, SMRC    2-5 May
Ganjar Pranowo33.3% (2)
Anies Baswedan21.7% (3)
Prabowo Subianto33.9% (1)Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI-Denny JA)    3-14 May
Ganjar Pranowo31.9% (2)
Anies Baswedan20.8% (3)
Prabowo vs. Ganjar24.5% (1) to 22.8%Litbang Kompas  29 April-10 May  
Prabowo vs. Anies24.5% (1) to 13.6%
(Note and sources: Editor’s summation of public survey results compiled by author; see LSI, SMRC, LSI-Denny JA and Litbang Kompas)

Before this, many might have underestimated the political longevity of Prabowo. This author contends that he is still a viable candidate for the 2024 presidential race. Like for Ganjar and Anies, support for Prabowo can still increase or decrease in the lead-up to the February 2024 presidential election (PE). The popularity ratings of Prabowo, Ganjar and Anies depend on many factors, but the candidates’ campaign tactics and strategy are two important issues that can influence probabilities. Prabowo’s competitiveness lies in the apparent change in his strategy for electoral victory. This article focuses on how Prabowo is shifting his campaign strategy from a hard or antagonistic one – as seen in his previous presidential bids in 2014 and 2019 – to his softer approach for the 2024 PE.

In the last two presidential elections, Prabowo conducted an offensive strategy against his opponents. He often used harsh words to express his ideas and his image was one of a “temperamental” candidate, with one observer comparing him with former U.S. president Donald J. Trump. Prabowo’s seemingly emotional statements were not only addressed to his direct rival, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), but also to Jokowi’s supporters.

But now, Prabowo seems to be branding himself as an open and inclusive politician. He has made numerous political courtesy visits (silaturahmi politik) not only to national figures including politicians and military figures but also those who might even reject his leadership or with whom he has had differences. When visiting retired general Wiranto, who fired him from the military, Prabowo praised Wiranto as his “boss”. Wiranto feels that now he can support Prabowo. Prabowo also visited former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose Democrat Party (PD) is supporting Anies Baswedan. Through his social media channels, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, Prabowo is also trying to make a good impression on the public.

Prabowo’s style of political rhetoric is changing. He does not criticise political figures from parties that do not support him, at least in the case of Anies and Sandiaga Uno. In the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, Prabowo fully supported Anies as the governor of Jakarta in the race to beat Basuki Tjaja Purnama (Ahok). Minister of Tourism Sandiaga Uno, Prabowo’s running mate for the 2019 PE, has resigned from Gerindra, Prabowo’s party. Uno’s move allows him to team up with any of the leading PE candidates (not necessarily Prabowo).

Essentially, this means that Anies and Uno are now in different camps from Prabowo: the former is the preferred candidate of the National Democrats (NasDem), PD, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and thus a direct opponent, while the United Development Party (PPP) is trying to partner with the PDI-P and has apparently promised Uno he could be Ganjar’s running-mate.

Instead of accusing Anies and Uno of being disloyal, Prabowo has stated that these figures are his brothers.

But now, Prabowo seems to be branding himself as an open and inclusive politician.

It seems that Prabawo wants to be understood by Indonesian voters as a man of integrity, harmony, and tolerance. To this end, he has taken steps to change his campaign approach.

Admittedly, Prabowo was previously seen to be close to conservative Islamist groups. In the general elections in 2014 and 2019, Prabowo preferred to approach the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI, banned in 2020), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI, banned in 2017), and other radical or Islamist groups as his electoral enclave. Then, Prabowo believed in harnessing identity politics to secure his victory. Based on this, he made connections with FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab, Libyan-educated preacher Adi Hidayat, the controversial preacher Abdul Somad (banned from at least six countries and deported from Singapore in 2022), and others.

Prabowo seems to be distancing himself from the militant and radical groups who previously supported him. He now prefers to meet personalities like Gus Miftah (an influential celebrity preacher from Yogyakarta), Habib Jindan (a moderate hadrami, i.e., figure of Yemeni origin), Habib Lutfi (a respected national ulama from Pekalongan and member of the Presidential Advisory Council), and others.

It seems that Prabowo has learned from his previous experiences that, first, working with Islamist groups was not successful. Second, his alliance with these groups was just tactical. Third, Prabowo’s awareness that associating with Islamist groups was not a good fit for him due to his core secular and nationalist identity. Prabowo probably understands that he has to connect with religious figures who are respected or even beloved by “his expected and prospective voters” who are moderate nahdliyyin – the followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) –  to win the presidency. The NU is the largest Muslim organisations whose members reportedly range from 45 to 95 million.

Seen a different way, Prabowo is targeting Jokowi’s main cadre of moderate Muslim supporters. To this end, Prabowo recently visited late president and former NU general chairman Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur)’s grave and some important NU pesantren including Tebuireng Jombang, Tambak Beras, Termas and others in East Java. Given that his potential running-mate might be a National Awakening Party (PKB) figure, Prabowo is renewing his contacts with ulamas who are close to the NU tradition, as PKB has traditionally been linked to NU.

It is too early to conclude that Prabowo’s shift in strategy would be sufficient to secure victory in 2024. It, however, might be helpful for Prabowo to be inclusive and tolerant, and to work in harmony with key moderate Islamic figures. Doing so would work not only as an electoral tactic but also serve his broader goal to be seen as a mature national statesman.


Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.