Former general Prabowo Subianto lost to Joko Widodo in the 2014 Indonesian presidential election, capturing only 46.85% popular vote. President “Jokowi” Joko Widodo won more than 8 million votes. This year, Mr. Prabowo again tried his luck. The voter turnout – 81.93% – the highest in Indonesian presidential electoral history, saw Jokowi slaughtered Prabowo again – winning more than 16 million votes.
As liberal Jokowi doubled his popular votes against nationalist Prabowo, radical Islamist groups’ plan to push for wider implementation of Shariah laws under the retired three-star general and former commander of Indonesia’s elite Special Forces hits a roadblock. Curiously, Prabowo’s brother and sister are Christians.
But against the popular Jokowi, Prabowo Subianto, former son-in-law of the late autocratic president Suharto, who ruled for 32 years until he was ousted following a mass student-led protests in 1998, has no choice but put his gambling chips trying to project an image as a pious Muslim to boost his chance – promising “ulama (Muslim scholars)” to be free from criminal threats.
Mr. Prabowo declared his protection for religious groups, a move perceived by radical Islamist group as license to establish an Islamic caliphate in Indonesia. He insisted that being religious doesn’t mean being extreme, although analysts easily saw his rhetoric as a ploy to win Muslim voters, after Jokowi cleverly chose Muslim scholar Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.
Everyone in Indonesia knows that while Prabowo is a Muslim, he is not a pious Muslim. Therefore, he desperately moved to align himself with Muslim hardliners to prop up support. After official election results showed that Joko Widodo had beaten his rival Prabowo Subianto again for the second time, protests, which began peacefully on Tuesday but soon turned violent.
Sore loser Prabowo rejected the results, accusing massive cheating and irregularities in vote counting, allegations rubbished by the election commission. His supporters quickly clashed with security forces and set fire to a police dormitory and vehicles in Jakarta on Wednesday after the official results. They were hoping to recreate the 2017 mass protest against the Christian governor of Jakarta – “Ahok”.
Although the riots on Wednesday could only attract a smaller crowd as compared to 200,000 Muslim protesters in 2017, at least 6 people have died and about 200 injured in the clashes. Unlike the 2017’s protest against Governor “Ahok”, more than 50,000 troops had been deployed this time in Jakarta in anticipation of potential violence.
The rioting also brings back a dark memory when some of the protesters chanted anti-Chinese slogans such as “Usir Cina” (kick out Chinese) and “Awas Asing” (beware of foreigners) – apparently in reference to Jokowi’s openness to investment from China. The Indonesian president has also been criticised for favouring the Chinese Indonesian community.
The May 1998 Indonesia riots saw at least 10,000 people were killed and at least 168 cases of rape – most of the victims were ethnic Chinese. Properties owned by Chinese Indonesians were deliberately targeted. Some business owners reportedly paid local thugs to protect them from the anti-Chinese violence because security forces were largely absent.
But the situation today is different from the 1998 bloody riots, which were triggered by terrible economic conditions under Suharto’s 32 years of dictatorship – mass retrenchment, skyrocketing of the cost of basic goods, a financial crisis, and fatal shootings of student protesters. Perhaps Prabowo thought he could try the same trick in destabilizing his rival Jokowi.
Interestingly, Prabowo Subianto was one of the three military chiefs entrusted to end the protest in the 1998 riots. Together with General Wiranto and General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the trios were supposed to commit their forces to help restore calm and peace in the country. Instead, security forces under their military leadership did nothing and allowed violence to escalate in Jakarta.
Investigations revealed that the 1998 violence in Jakarta was the result of an internal power struggle within the military elite to become the Suharto’s successor. Many believed Kostrad commander Prabowo Subianto sought to become his father-in-law’s successor. He was also suspected of organising the kidnappings of students and activists prior to the 1997 election.
WikiLeaks revealed that Prabowo’s forces had tried to create chaos in the city of Jakarta as part of an effort to seize power for himself. A military tribunal subsequently discharged Prabowo without honor from the TNI (Indonesian National Armed Forces). Indonesian Chinese have their reservations and concerns about Probowo whom they see as anti-Chinese.
As early as 2014, when Prabowo offered himself as the presidential candidate, there were concerns that people could become victims of human-rights violations again – if he gets elected. Toward the end of Suharto’s rule, military units abducted and tortured 23 democracy activists, 13 of whom have not been seen since. And all fingers point at Prabowo.
In response to the unrest on Wednesday, the Indonesian authorities said that they would block some social media services, including Facebook and Instagram. Apparently, fake news and pictures spread by those aligned to Prabowo were circulating on social media that police officers have been sent from “communist China” to Indonesia to shoot at protesters.
Jokowi, flanked by the military chief and other top leaders, said – “I will work together with anyone to advance this country, but I will not tolerate anyone who disrupts the security, democratic processes and unity of our beloved nation. There is no choice, the military and police will take firm action in accordance with the law.”
So far, Prabowo has made four unsuccessful bids for the presidency since Suharto was ousted in 1998. The fact that the rioting in the capital was planned and not spontaneous as many of those arrested had come from outside Jakarta shows that Prabowo was indeed desperate to become the president, so much so that he was willing to repeat what he had done in 1998.