JAKARTA - Indonesians have expressed anger and disappointment over the news that Mr Prabowo Subianto will be joining President Joko Widodo's new Cabinet, given how the former army general was Mr Joko's challenger in the last two presidential elections.
Mr Prabowo, 68, who leads the largest opposition party Gerindra, told reporters after meeting Mr Joko on Monday (Oct 21) that he had been requested by the president to help with the defence portfolio, which he has accepted.
Mr Joko, who defeated Mr Prabowo in the last two highly divisive presidential elections, is set to announce his new Cabinet line-up on Wednesday.
The president has been having meetings since Monday with the candidates, which includes Mr Nadiem Makarim, co-founder of ride-hailing firm Gojek.
Mr Ahmad Zazali, legal and advocacy chief of Mr Joko's youth volunteer group Pemuda Bravo 5, told The Straits Times it was surprising that Mr Prabowo himself would join the Cabinet, although the shifting of his party's alignment had been widely anticipated after its recent talks with Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).
Mr Ahmad added that many volunteers were disappointed with the decision taken by Mr Joko, better known as Jokowi, and the topic was widely discussed in the WhatsApp groups of volunteers.
"We have a lot of concerns. In the first place, can he prove his loyalty to Mr Jokowi?" asked Mr Ahmad, adding that during the past election campaign, Mr Prabowo tended to attack the president personally.
Although he understood that Mr Prabowo's appointment was highly political, Mr Ahmad felt the defence ministerial post, which he described as "strategic and sensitive", should not be given to someone from a political party.
"Mr Jokowi must reconsider his options," he said.
The Defence Ministry will receive the biggest state budget compared to the other 33 ministries next year.
It will have 127.4 trillion rupiah (S$12 billion) to disburse, slightly higher than a 120.2 trillion rupiah budget for the Public Housing and Works Ministry, which has driven Mr Joko's massive infrastructure push that has been widely deemed a success in his first five-year term.
Mr Prabowo, the former son-in-law of the late president Suharto, was the former chief of the army's elite Special Forces, or Kopassus.
But he was dismissed from military service after he was implicated in the abduction of pro-democracy activists in 1998.
Like her fellow volunteers, Ms Sukriati Sensus was surprised and disappointed when Mr Joko told them in a meeting after his inauguration on Sunday night about his offer to Gerindra and Mr Prabowo.
Some of the volunteers directly raised this issue with the president, she added.
"We were against the move. It's natural that we felt that way. We faced a bitter fight in the presidential election and saw how the opposition wanted to topple Mr Jokowi," said the 49-year-old teacher.
But she has accepted the president's decision, believing that it had been taken after "careful consideration" and "consultations with advisers".
Beyond public surprise, observers said Mr Prabowo's willingness to jump ship to the ruling coalition is a highly calculated move, particularly to boost the future prospect of Gerindra, and even his electability if he should decide to contest for the presidency for the third time in 2024.
Dr Aditya Perdana, executive director of the University of Indonesia's Centre for Political Studies, said Gerindra's desire to be in the Cabinet is understandable as it is the only political party in Parliament which has yet to be part of any government.
"But at the same time, we need to understand that Gerindra, like other parties, has a need to survive in the next five years," he said.
He added: "One of the most feasible possibilities to ensure its survival is to become part of the government, because it could have resources and chances to execute its desired programmes. It could also get in touch with voters intensively so that the electability of the people inside the party can be sustained."
Dr Aditya also pointed out that defence and agriculture are areas Mr Prabowo has been passionate about, discussing both issues extensively in the presidential debates and other forums.
Apart from Mr Prabowo, the president also met Gerindra deputy chairman Edhy Prabowo, who will likely be appointed agriculture minister, according to analysts.