How Will Prabowo Subianto, An Ex-General Who's Never Held Elective Office, Lead Indonesia?

Indonesian Defense Minister and presidential frontrunner Prabowo Subianto greets supporters before visited the grave of Habib Ali bin Abdurrahman Al-Habsyi at the Al Riyadh Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Prabowo Subianto’s rise as Indonesia’s apparent next president is a dramatic comeback from a notorious past, which saw the United States banning his entry over human rights and the Indonesian army, where he led the special forces, expelling him. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)
Indonesian Defense Minister and presidential frontrunner Prabowo Subianto greets supporters before visited the grave of Habib Ali bin Abdurrahman Al-Habsyi at the Al Riyadh Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Prabowo Subianto’s rise as Indonesia’s apparent next president is a dramatic comeback from a notorious past, which saw the United States banning his entry over human rights and the Indonesian army, where he led the special forces, expelling him. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)
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JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Foreign leaders congratulated Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto on his apparent victory in Indonesia's presidential election, while rights activists called him a threat. But how he'll govern remains uncertain after a campaign in which he made few concrete promises besides continuity with the popular outgoing president.

The 72-year-old ex-general has never held elective office. He'll lead a massive, diverse island nation whose economy has boomed amid strong global demand for its natural resources, but he'll have to contend with global economic distress and regional tensions in Asia, where territorial conflicts and the U.S.-China rivalry loom large.

The election outcome capped a long comeback for Subianto, who was expelled from the Indonesian army over allegations his men tortured dissidents, and banned from traveling to the United States and Australia for years.

He declared victory Wednesday night after unofficial tallies by polling agencies showed him taking an overwhelming lead over two other contenders in the race to lead the world’s third-largest democracy. If an official count conducted over the next few weeks confirms his victory, he'll take office in November.

He has vowed to continue Widodo’s modernization efforts, which have boosted Indonesia’s economic growth by building infrastructure and leveraging the country’s abundant resources. A signature policy required nickel, a major Indonesian export and a key component of electric car batteries, to be processed in local factories rather than exported raw.

He's also promised to push through Widodo’s most ambitious and controversial project, the construction of a new capital on the frontier island Borneo, about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away from the congested current capital of Jakarta.

A LONGTIME WIDODO RIVAL

Subianto was a longtime rival of Widodo who ran against him for the presidency twice, and refused to accept his loss in 2019. But after his reelection, Widodo asked Subianto to serve as defense chief. He took the offer, which served as a springboard for his stunning comeback. Subianto chose Widodo's son as his running mate and earned tacit support from the outgoing leader.

Subianto's background and personality are a sharp contrast with his immensely popular predecessor. He is known for his temper, unease with criticism, and fiery speeches. The soft-spoken Widodo has rarely shown anger in public.

Subianto comes from one of the country's wealthiest families and his father was an influential politician who served as a minister under both Suharto and the country's first president, Sukarno. Widodo rose to the presidency from a common background and as president often mingled with working-class crowds and journalists.

It’s uncertain how Subianto will respond to political dissent, street protests and critical journalism.

But for now, he appears to enjoy widespread support. The unofficial results showed him taking more than 55% of the vote in a three-way race, enough to win without a runoff.

Josteka Banjarnahor, a resident of Jakarta who voted for Subianto, said his long pursuit of the presidency indicates his sincerity. “It’s not because he’s hungry for office,” she said. “If you think about his actual age, he’s no longer fit, but his dream of running for president several times means there are good things he wants.”

CONCERNS AMONG RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

Many activists see the ex-general’s ties to the brutal authoritarian regime of Suharto — whose daughter was once Subianto's wife — as a bad omen.

“Winter is coming,” Usman Hamid, Amnesty International’s executive director in Indonesia, told The Associated Press.

“People can be old, but if they are authoritarian, then they are still authoritarian,” Hamid said. “What is important is for us to build structural conditions. There must be voices of opposition, there must be space for freedom and there must be integrity of the election system.

Dozens of protesters marched in Jakarta on Friday claiming widespread electoral fraud in an effort to block Subianto's rise to power but did not offer any evidence. They dispersed peacefully after more than two hours.

Subianto was expelled by the army, where he served as a special forces commander, over accusations that he played a role in the kidnappings and torture of activists and other abuses. He never faced a trial and vehemently denies any involvement, although several of his men were tried and convicted.

SUBIANTO'S FOREIGN POLICY

On foreign policy, Sana Jaffrey, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Political and Social Change, said Subianto would likely continue Widodo's efforts to maintain ties with both Beijing and Washington, while rejecting alignment with either.

The delicate balancing act has paved the way for substantial Chinese trade and investment for Indonesia, including a $7.3 billion high-speed railway that was largely funded by China, while Jakarta boosted defense ties and intensified military exercises with the U.S. under Subianto as defense chief.

The United States and Australia banned Subianto’s entry for years due to his human rights record, but in 2020 he traveled as Widodo’s defense minister to the U.S. to meet his American counterpart, Mark Esper. Indonesian activists said then that the U.S. decision to allow Subianto back to America after a two-decade ban was a “loss for human rights.”

The leaders of Australia, Singapore and Malaysia were among the first to congratulate Subianto.

“I was honored to be the first foreign leader to speak today with Prabowo, who has a clear lead in official and unofficial counts, about my ambition for the future of Australia-Indonesia relations,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement on Wednesday, as preliminary results were still being counted, congratulating Indonesians for a strong turnout and citing the 75 years of diplomatic ties between Washington and Jakarta, without mentioning Subianto.

"This vote was a testament to the durability and strength of the Indonesian people’s commitment to the democratic process and electoral institution,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, adding that the U.S. was looking forward to the announcement of official results.

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Associated Press journalists Andi Jatmiko in Jakarta and Haruka Nuga in Bangkok contributed to this report.