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Indonesians worried about democracy under Subianto

The 72-year-old ex-army general sailed through the Feb. 14 presidential polls in world's third largest democracy
Prabowo Subianto delivers the victory speech on Feb. 14.

Prabowo Subianto delivers the victory speech on Feb. 14. (Photo: Youtube)

Published: February 15, 2024 11:24 AM GMT
Updated: February 16, 2024 05:56 AM GMT

Church leaders have joined civil society in expressing concern over the fate of democracy in Indonesia after a former general linked to human rights abuses claimed victory in the Feb. 14 presidential polls.

Prabowo Subianto, 72, was once dismissed from service for rights abuses and banned from the U.S. in 2020, and reportedly spent time in exile in Jordan. The former army general currently serves as defense minister.

The official poll results will be announced only next month. However, quick counts showed Subianto winning more than 50 percent of vote share in a relatively peaceful election on Feb. 14 involving more than 200 million voters.

Father Otto Gusti Madung, rector of Ledalero Institute of Philosophy and Creative Technology in Flores, said Subianto's victory signals a further decline in democracy due to his past track record.

“The civil society will have to speak even louder to control [his] power,” the priest said.

Analysts believe that Subianto's victory became easy with the support of President Joko Widodo whose son Gibran Rakabuming Raka was appointed as Subianto's vice-presidential candidate in November last year.

Since then, Widodo has issued many populist policies to support Subianto, including the distribution of social assistance funds to the poor.

Widodo personally distributed the funds in several regions of the country.

Subianto, a former rival who lost two presidential races to Widodo, succeeded in getting the top job in the country in his third attempt. 

Rikus Bandut, a voter in Pelus village in East Nusa Tenggara Province, said he chose Subianto because he believed he would continue Widodo's programs such as social assistance.

"Subianto’s victory cannot be separated from Widodo's role," he told UCA News.

Lukas Lalun, 48, from Kringa Village in Sikka Regency in the same province echoed a similar view.

"This [result] means we can still see Widodo in Subianto," he said.

Both the voters said they cared less about Subianto’s past and his involvement in rights abuses.

Subianto was fired from service in 1998 following allegations of rights violations. He is alleged to have played a role in kidnapping activists during the authoritarian rule of Suharto, his father-in-law, in 1997.

Reverend Gomar Gultom, general chairman of the Union of Churches in Indonesia, a Protestant denomination, refused to comment on Subianto's victory.

"The people have made their choice, and we must respect it. ⁠⁠It is time for us to restore unity and brotherhood, which were disrupted due to the campaign narrative,” he said.

Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International in Indonesia, said Subianto's victory would lead Indonesian democracy to an even worse decline.

Ignatius Haryanto, a journalism teacher at Multimedia Nusantara University in Gading Serpong, said Subianto's victory means press freedom will be threatened.

Subianto has often refused interviews with certain media, especially those critical of him.

Last year, the Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia recorded 89 cases of attacks against journalists and the media -- the highest in 10 years.

Viva Yoga Mauladi, a spokesperson for Subianto's campaign, said that concerns over press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights issues were unnecessary.

"He [Subianto] will implement the law. Don't be afraid that a change in government will lead to authoritarian rule," he said.

In his earlier election campaigns in 2014 and 2019, Subianto courted hardline Islamist groups and projected himself as a fiery nationalist.

However, this time, he went for an image makeover through a social media-focused campaign highlighting his Javanese dance moves.

Subianto will replace Widodo, who rose to power from a riverside slum and whose ascension was seen as a victory of democracy in Indonesia.

Widodo's economic roadmap titled "Golden Indonesia 2045" aimed to make the country one of the world's top five economies, exactly a century after it won freedom from the Dutch.

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Indonesia as a “flawed democracy” on the 2022 Democracy Index.

The largest Muslim nation fared poorly in democratic political culture and civil liberties indicators, it said.

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