Prabowo Subianto: Indonesia’s Opposition Leader?

It appears almost certain that Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto will lose his bid in the country’s Constitutional Court to overturn the results of the July 9 polls won by Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, analysts say. Prabowo has charged the election was massively rigged against him.

Joko has received accolades from across the planet as a new face that could revolutionize Indonesian politics. He is lining up members for his cabinet and basking in the congratulations after having won with 53.16 percent of the vote against 46.48 percent for the former Special Forces general. The vote was ratified by the Election Commission on July 22.

That leaves the 62-year-old Prabowo the potential leader of the opposition. He has never held a legislative or government position beyond his military career and creating his Gerindra Party, having gone into business after being fired for insubordination from his army post for kidnapping human rights activists and other transgressions.

Prabowo's performance from this point forward will depend on how obstructionist he wants to be against the 53-year-old Jokowi, as Joko is known. Certainly Prabowo has hardly been a good loser. In addition to refusing to concede after Jokowi’s win, he has urged his followers to surround the Constitutional Court where his challenge is being heard. They were outside the court building today (July 25), chanting Prabowo’s name. With a plurality of nearly 8 million votes for the Jokowi-Kalla ticket, however, it seems impossible to find enough fraud to justify nullifying the vote.

The former general is visibly outraged that Jokowi, a few years ago a furniture dealer and political activist, could have beaten him, the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families and a representative of the political aristocracy.

He possesses the potential for mischief from the fact that from a party that didn’t exist a decade earlier, Gerindra has surged into the third-biggest party in the 560-member House of Representatives with 73 seats, behind the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P (109 seats) headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, which fielded Jokowi, and Golkar (91), headed by coal tycoon Aburizal Bakrie. Prabowo, starting early, ran a highly organized, effective and aggressive campaign to build his party, energetically courting the population outside of Jakarta with a strong nationalist message that resonated with voters.

The coalition of six parties that backed Prabowo in the general election now controls nearly two thirds of the incoming legislature – for now. That could represent a formidable challenge to the reform agenda that Jokowi is assumed to be putting together, with one major caveat, and that is that party loyalty is rare in Indonesia and elected members tend to jump to the party in power. Already the Democratic Party headed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reportedly considering changing to the ruling coalition.

Some factions in Golkar, already angry at Bakrie for backing Prabowo in the general election, are also hinting at defecting to the president-elect’s side. Other parties are said to be contemplating switching sides as well, as being in the opposition means loss of access to the government goodies.

In this case, it may depend on how much the business elite feel threatened by Jokowi’s advance. The president-elect has few machine connections. If his rhetoric is to be believed, he wants to make major inroads into government corruption including cleaning up the tender process and tax regime, which companies like Bakrie’s conglomerate have made a practice of evading for decades. He may face a challenge within his own party, which is hardly known for probity. Megawati before the election said Jokowi would take orders from the party. It remains to be seen if he appoints is own cabinet, or if it is a PDI-P one.

Indonesia’s domestic business community has traditionally regarded government as a partner willing to turn a blind eye to enforcement in case where their interests are being threatened. Regulations that protect the business community and stifle the economy have to be unwound – and pushed through what could be a recalcitrant House.

Prabowo, with a personal fortune estimated at US$160 million, is a charter member of the closely linked business elite. His younger brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, is one of Indonesia’s richest men. Prabowo remains close to the web of interests in the hands of the Suharto family, which before the strongman died stifled vast areas of the economy. Some of those arrangements remain in place.

Environmental cleanup is one of those areas badly needing change. Huge tracts of the country are being illegally logged and planted with oil palm. If Jokowi gets in the way, the consequences are unknown.

Famously, outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, ended up being forced out of government because of her attempts to bring some of those interests, particularly Bakrie’s, to heel. In that instance, Yudhoyono left Sri Mulyani to twist in the wind, failing to defend her.

If I were to have a say, I’d be a very vigilant opposition party,” Prabowo’s brother Hashim told Reuters.

Even if the coalition stays together, Prabowo may be forced to play second fiddle to the larger Golkar, Dradjad Wibowo, the deputy head of the National Mandate Party (PAN), another coalition partner, told the Jakarta Globe.

“I’m not sure Gerindra can lead the…opposition, because they don’t have the highest number of seats in parliament,” Dradjad said, playing down the potential for the opposition to play spoiler to Joko’s reform program.

It is a legislature, however, that was willing to play ball with Bakrie to deliver long months of specious charges against Sri Mulyani and her ally, the Central Bank Governor Boediono, over their attempts to save a failed bank amid concerns the financial system could collapse in the 2008 global financial crisis. Bakrie is still on the scene along with Prabowo. It may not be easy to be a reformer against considerable odds.