After two defeats, Prabowo still aims for Indonesia's presidency

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures after a press conference during the general election in Jakarta on April 17, 2019.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures after a press conference during the general election in Jakarta on April 17, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - For Indonesian opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, a second straight presidential election loss has done little to dent his ambitions, and is unlikely to mark the end of his checkered political career.

The former special-forces commander is open to striking a deal with incumbent Joko Widodo to ensure his party becomes part of the government, and flagged before the election that he may take another shot at the top job in 2024.

His brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who is also deputy chairman of the Gerindra party, confirmed this month that negotiations are underway and that another tilt at the presidency five years from now has not been ruled out.

Mr Prabowo lost his bid to overturn the result of the presidential election after the nation's Constitutional Court on Thursday (June 27) unanimously rejected allegations of "systematic electoral fraud".

After being a central figure in months of unrest that saw the deadliest political violence in Jakarta in two decades, and with his political allies too set to switch sides, Mr Prabowo is weighing his options.

"We believe that we will not stop here. We can fight for our dreams in the legislative body and other forums," he said after the court ruling. "We can consolidate. We have real people power."

Joining hands with Jokowi, as President Joko is known, "wouldn't really hurt him because the 2024 election is an open contest, and being affiliated with Widodo would not be a bad thing at that time", said Mr Kevin O'Rourke, a political analyst who publishes the Reformasi Weekly report. "There's a clear prospect for an accommodation based on some sort of transactional exchange."

Mr O'Rourke said speculation was that Mr Prabowo may be appointed as the head of the country's Presidential Advisory Board. Mr Djojohadikusumo said any alliance has to accommodate some of the Gerindra party's policies.

SWITCHING SIDES

While inviting Mr Prabowo into the fold may ease the path for Mr Joko to push tough economic reforms through Parliament and help bridge the polarisation caused by the bitter campaign, it also exposes the fluid equation among political parties in the world's third-largest democracy.

Indonesia began to directly elect its president only in 2004 and Mr Joko is the first president from outside the military or political elite, although he's been backed by Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president herself and a member of one of Indonesia's most influential dynasties.

"Ten years as the opposition has been very financially disadvantageous," Mr Djojohadikusumo told reporters on June 19. "Everything is a negotiation," he said, adding ahead of the election that Mr Joko had "offered the vice-presidency to my brother on three occasions". Arya Sinulingga, a spokesman for the president's campaign, declined to comment.

 
 
 

VIOLENT CLASHES

The General Elections Commission last month said Mr Joko won 55.5 per cent of the vote in the April 17 elections, almost doubling his winning margin against the same opponent in 2014.

Mr Prabowo rejected the official result and some of his supporters clashed with police after rallies turned violent. As many as nine protesters were killed and hundreds injured, according to the authorities.

Stocks and bonds rallied on Friday as the court ruling ended months of political uncertainty. The benchmark Jakarta Composite Index rose as much as 0.4 per cent, set for a fifth weekly advance, while yield on the 10-year sovereign rupiah bonds fell 4 basis points to its lowest level since July last year.

Mr Prabowo, once married to a daughter of former dictator Suharto, and with a reputation as a strongman, has worked hard to cultivate an image of being a man of the people who can lift Indonesians out of poverty and make the country a power to be reckoned with. But his attempt to win an elected office has failed thrice after first losing a shot at the vice-president's job in the company of Ms Megawati in 2009.

DESTINY

The 67-year-old has made his ambitions clear, having already flagged plans to run for the presidency for a third time.

"I'm someone who believes in the flow of life, and destiny. I will serve my people," he said in an interview in April when asked whether it would be his last presidential race. "Mahathir is still serving," he added, referring to Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who scored a shock win in last year's election at the age of 92.

Mr Djojohadikusumo, seen as Mr Prabowo's financier, said his brother was young "compared to Joe Biden", who at 76 is vying to be the Democrat Party nominee in the next United States presidential election.

If Mr Prabowo indeed ends up in a Jokowi-led government, it is sure to affect the hardline Islamic groups which backed his presidential bid and who will now need to seek out another champion.

Some of the radical groups were seeking a democratic route to power by backing Mr Prabowo and may now return to pursue violence and terrorism, according to Mr Alexander Arifianto, research fellow with the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

MORE ISLAMISM

The election campaign was marred by identity politics, with the opposition targeting the President's religious credentials and his alleged proximity to China. Some of the most conservative regions - such as West Java, West Sumatra and Aceh - overwhelmingly voted for Mr Prabowo, who was backed by hardline Islamic groups and parties, data from the elections commission showed.

"Just because they were defeated doesn't mean the Islamists will go away. They are very resilient force and very driven by their religious interpretation," Mr Arifianto said. "Indonesia dodged the bullet towards more Islamism in 2019 but whether it will do so in five years' time remains to be seen."

That might boost Mr Prabowo's prospects in 2024 when Mr Joko will not be able to contest because of the two-term limit imposed by Indonesia's Constitution.

"While Prabowo might well be willing to join the government, it is hard to envisage President Jokowi offering up a post that would satisfy his expectations," said Mr Hugo Brennan, principal political analyst with Verisk Maplecroft. Still, he said a key feature of Indonesia's democratic transition has been the willingness of political parties that back the losing presidential candidate to switch their support to the winner.

A so-called "rainbow coalition" that includes the vast majority of lawmakers would, however, prevent the emergence of an effective opposition "and the associated checks and balances that go with it", Mr Brennan said.