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Prabowo must go for new thinking

Derwin Pereira
Derwin Pereira • 8 min read
Prabowo must go for new thinking
Prabowo Subianto, seen here in a Feb 10 file photo, is well-positioned to provide the kind of strong, decisive leadership Indonesians want / Photo: Bloomberg
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Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto’s promise is to make Indonesia great again. It is not much of a slogan as slogans go: Donald Trump wanted to make America great again.

However, Prabowo can make a real difference in the country by focusing on a few essentials.

On the domestic front, the new president must balance his mass popular base and power-corridor politics. He comes to power on account of both. He struck a chord with the Indonesian public, which voted for him because of his near-charismatic persona. 

It contrasted with that of Widodo, whose boy-next-door image had worked well at the beginning of his presidency but whose appeal had worn off over two terms.

Prabowo is not the boy next door: He is the former general next door and the point about generals is that they know how to handle guns. Indonesians want strong, decisive leadership.

Prabowo is well-positioned to provide it should he remember that his mandate is to ensure the future of talented and hungry people, Southeast Asia’s most numerous, living in its largest country.

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Corruption is an issue that he would need to look into intensely. True, corruption flourished under ex-President Suharto, as did Indonesia, but the times have changed.

Spurred on by the country’s democratisation and the consequent growth of civil society, a vigilant citizenry will not tolerate the extent and depth of corruption associated with fallen regimes. Prabowo would make a deep impression on the Indonesian mind should he be able to take the fight against corruption beyond the levels achieved by his predecessor.

Even as he keeps an eye on policy changes that make a difference on the ground, Prabowo would need to ensure that he survives political manoeuvrings in the corridors of power he will inhabit. Details of his Cabinet — and therefore the names and potential of politically ambitious people who will surround him — will be known only later. Meanwhile, his Vice-President will be Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, his running mate in the presidential election.

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This is a delicate issue. To the extent that Prabowo enjoys his presidential victory to the endorsement of his predecessor, he will indeed be beholden to Gibran to a certain extent for having secured Widodo’s support.

Whether or not Gibran’s advent signals the reappearance of dynastic politics in Indonesia — former President Megawati Sukarnoputri is President Sukarno’s daughter, as is Prabowo himself, Suharto’s former son-in-law — the point is that Prabowo must stamp his presence on the new administration.

Indonesia can have only one President at a time: It cannot have a president-in-waiting on whom the extant president is dependent. Now that Prabowo is Indonesia’s final leader, he must make it clear to Widodo that he cannot exercise power indirectly through his son.

Should Prabowo fail this litmus test of leadership, his tenure would become a mere interregnum between two Widodos. Bill Clinton’s presidency, distinguished by his torrid affair with Monica Lewinsky, was famously characterised as sex between the Bushes (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush). Although Prabowo displays no extra-presidential weaknesses, he cannot afford to become a mere conduit of power from father to son.

Whom Prabowo chooses for his Cabinet will determine his own political future. Those beholden excessively to Widodo for their power would not make good Cabinet colleagues. They could be expected to work for the son while bidding time under Prabowo, expecting the father’s support to be repeated down the years when the son rises to the top. 

There is rarely a clean break with the past in politics. However, the break with the past needs to be sufficiently clear to impress on both popular and elitist constituencies that the new president means business.    

Foreign front
In foreign affairs, Prabowo will inherit from Widodo perhaps one of the most intractable problems that Indonesia could have ever expected to face: the rivalry between the US and China for the mastery of Asia. 

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Like other nations, Indonesia is keenly aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult for countries to say they do not wish to choose sides between the US and China. The point is not that they do not wish to choose but that those two great powers would want to force a choice on them. 

The US, which has embarked on a calibrated policy of containment of China, would want democratic Indonesia to be a part of the network of informal alliances that subscribe to the concepts of a liberal international order in general and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in particular. 

China, whose economic heft is giving it the strategic means to pursue its goal of removing the US as Asia’s offshore balancer, is intensely interested in drawing Indonesia to its side. 

It cannot be forgotten that Indonesia is a middle power because of its sizable population, physical size and geographical position. It must balance its underlying strategic links with the America-led West and its burgeoning economic relations with China.

Jakarta could be expected to work within the Asean framework of relations with the great powers, but that framework itself would change in light of the shifting balance of power in Sino-American relations. Prabowo would need two capable and experienced ministers — those in charge of foreign affairs and defence — to continue positioning Indonesia in the best way possible so that it does not lose out no matter which great power wins the contest for Asia.

Jakarta must also continue to play a stabilising role in the Muslim world. The brand of moderate Islam practised in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, is a source of reassurance to other countries.

It is welcomed that Prabowo won the election on a platform that was insistently nationalistic but not overtly ethnic (either in religious or racial terms). Indonesian nationalism does not deny the agency of religion in citizens’ lives, but it does not allow the political manipulation of religiosity to overwhelm the state’s strategic choices and direction. Prabowo must stick to this basic political philosophy.

Boots to bureaucrat
Prabowo has transformed from a military strongman to a national statesman. Once he takes office in October, his challenge will lie in translating his transformation into a national one. That is easier said than done, but it is not impossible.

A bit of history is pertinent to his prospects. Indonesia is no stranger to strongman rule. Suharto came to power after an abortive coup mounted, purportedly by communists, led to an anti-communist bloodbath that involved both pribumi (an Indonesian and Malay term that means “indigenous” or “native”) and Chinese (since communist China was blamed for having backed the Partai Komunis Indonesia). 

Once Suharto was in power and the initial excesses against the communists had passed, the Chinese were reintegrated into the Indonesian mainstream, although on harshly pribumi cultural terms.

At the same time, Suharto moved to liberalise and internationalise the Indonesian economy, making foreign investment a marker of his break with the economic autarchy associated with the Sukarno years that had immiserated Indonesia and had provided the social fodder for the communists to capitalise on. Suharto modernised the education system and extended the ambit of social welfare — because his transformative policies gave him the financial power to do so. 

Corruption indeed reigned. However, it had done so earlier as well, the difference being that, under Suharto, corruption operated in an expanding and not a contracting economy.
He resigned in disgrace following Indonesia’s travails during the Asian Financial Crisis at the end of the 20th century. However, what remained was a lingering degree of new thinking in politics. Suharto had brought that thinking into an old Sukarnoist polity marked by a romantic break with the Dutch colonial past but no viable economic movement towards a post-colonial Indonesian future.

Suharto’s shadow
Every succeeding Indonesian leader is indebted to Suharto, but hardly anyone would say so publicly because of the strongman’s abysmal human rights record. This reluctance is understandable: Indonesia survived after Suharto’s downfall precisely because its democratic leaders managed to break his authoritarian grip on the popular imagination. 

Undeniably, post-Suharto Indonesia has built on the national edifice constructed by Suharto. It was extremely rough around its political edges, but the social timbre withstood the challenges of the international environment.

This is the legacy with which Prabowo must begin. He will not be an autocrat like Suharto because the times that created that despot have passed. Instead, Prabowo must contend with the legacies of all intervening presidents: the technocratic B. J. Habibie, the mass politician Abdurrahman Wahid, the patrician Megawati Sukarnoputri, the elitist Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the popular Joko Widodo. 

Prabowo cannot combine all these presidential attributes. However, he can choose which of them to weave together into an exquisite batik that symbolises his coming presidency and his promise to make Indonesia great again.  

The writer is the founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views

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