Despite being 10 percentage points behind more than a quarter into the official count, presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto still won’t concede defeat in Indonesia’s April 17 election, raising the specter of post-poll instability.
Analysts are of two minds on whether Prabowo genuinely believes he was the victim of massive electoral fraud, or if he is instead angling for major political concessions from President Joko Widodo in the formation of a new government.
With youthful running mate Sandiaga Uno remaining tight-lipped and Prabowo’s normally influential brother, businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, staying out of the limelight, Prabowo appears to be listening to an inner circle of advisers encouraging him to keep up the fight.
Trying to make sense of the 67-year-old politician’s often bizarre statements is difficult, but observers suspect he may want to continue applying pressure on Widodo in an effort to extract at least something out of an election that is seen as his last throw of the political dice.
With Prabowo threatening a people’s power revolution, Widodo said he was sending an envoy to smooth things over. But when that was revealed to be Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, there were concerns that what was meant to be a quiet Sunday lunch would turn into a circus.
Panjaitan, a tough-talking Batak from northern Sumatra, was Prabowo’s superior in the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus), and has often been referred to as “Minister 1.5” because of his role as the president’s senior political adviser and general problem fixer.
The much-anticipated meeting is expected to be quietly rescheduled for next week after Panjaitan returns from Beijing where he and Vice President Jusuf Kalla are attending the Belt and Road Forum, an event Widodo decided to forego with the vote count still underway.
Given the sharper religious and ethnic divisions revealed in the presidential election, observers wonder whether bringing Prabowo’s third-ranked Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) into a new Cabinet might ultimately go some of the way towards pulling the country back together.
Prabowo and his family, most of whom are Christian, certainly have little in common with the conservative Islamic lobby that has fallen in behind him. It is a marriage of convenience that raises serious questions about what a Prabowo government would look like if it ever did come to power.
Although his coalition partners, the Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and National Mandate (PAN) parties, have had little to say about the election outcome, Prabowo remains convinced that quick counts and exit polls are not telling the true story of what he claims was already a deeply flawed democratic exercise.
Widodo essentially won the election in populous East and Central Java, largely because of backing from the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama. But he lost West Java and fully 17 of the country’s other 34 provinces grouped on the other main islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
Officials blamed the failure to make up ground in West Java on a concerted backlash from followers of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the extremist Islamic organization which the government outlawed last year for its support of a global caliphate.
Widodo and his security chiefs are clearly worried. Thousands of paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade reinforcements have been brought in from Maluku, Kalimantan, Bali and Sumatra to guard the National Election Commission (KPU) and other strategic points in downtown Jakarta.
Still on heightened alert because of the Easter weekend, the police and military have refused to issue a permit for demonstrators to gather in downtown Jakarta. Instead, they continue to congregate outside Prabowo’s headquarters in the leafy up-scale suburb of Kebayoran Baru.
The government’s unease has been magnified by an April 22 meeting between Prabowo and former armed forces commander General Gatot Nurmantyo, known for his maverick views and links to the hard-line 212 Movement, which brought down Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama.
The pair discussed “strategic steps” they say need to be taken in the days ahead. “For us, the election fraud is structured, systematic, massive and brutal,” opposition campaign manager Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak was quoted as saying after the meeting.
The KPU has until May 22 to announce the official count from the simultaneous presidential and legislative elections, the world’s biggest single-day electoral event. Then there are another 10 weeks for the dispute resolution process to play out in the Constitutional Court.
Currently, after about a quarter of the vote counted, Widodo and running mate Ma’ruf Amin lead the Prabowo-Uno ticket by 55.3% to 44.6%, roughly equal to a range of quick counts on election day.
It is difficult to characterize the ties between Panjaitan and Prabowo, retired generals who were bitter enemies when they served together in the special forces. But mutual friends say if Prabowo will listen to anyone in the government, it is his former superior.
The pair have remained in contact since Panjaitan, the then ambassador to Singapore, broke the ice by giving Prabowo a new passport in 2000, two years after he had been cashiered from the military in the wake of the fall of president Suharto, his then father-in-law.
But their relations have never been easy, neither in the military or in business. A joint paper-milling venture ended badly and other trials and tribulations have followed, though they have always been civil. Panjaitan laughed delightedly when he was once asked just what was going on between them.
Back in early 2018, with Prabowo seemingly waffling over his presidential candidacy, he and Panjaitan met three times in the space of a few weeks. At the first two meetings Panjaitan urged him to run, but at the third session over a Japanese lunch he did raise the possibility of a joint ticket.
According to witnesses, however, he quickly lost his appetite after Prabowo said he would consider a deal if, as vice president, he was placed in charge of the military and given seven seats in a new Cabinet. That is hardly the sort of bargain Widodo would agree to now either.
Panjaitan has been careful to prepare the ground for next week’s meeting, warning those around Prabowo not to feed him with false information about alleged vote tampering. “Prabowo has a high sense of patriotism, he is a statesman,” he said. “He doesn’t want to destroy this country with a wrong decision.”