Prabowo Subianto: the “beloved grandfather” with a bloody past

  • Written by Yvette Tan and Trisha Hosada
  • In Singapore and Jakarta

Video explanation,

Watch: 'Loved Grandpa' dances away from dark past in Indonesia's presidential race

There was a time when the name Prabowo Subianto terrified most Indonesians.

But now young voters appear to have been impressed by the Defense Secretary's ingenious change. A fiery former Special Forces commander dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and disappearances has become a cute grandfather made for memes.

“He's a lot older, but he can embrace my generation,” says Albert Joshua, a 25-year-old supporter.

Prabowo is now 72 years old, and is running to succeed the very popular Joko Widodo when the third largest democracy in the world votes on February 14. It promises more stability and economic development that Widodo, or Jokowi as he is known, pushed during his decade in power.

So far, opinion polls show Prabowo ahead of his younger rivals Jangar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan. The two men are in their 50s and have experience running major Indonesian provinces as governors. Job security, infrastructure and Indonesia's greater diplomatic role dominate their election campaigns.

Prabowo's vice president is Widodo's eldest son, Gebran Rakabuming Raka. It is a choice that many see as an implicit blessing from the president, who has yet to endorse anyone, including his party's nominee, Mr. Brannwo.

But Prabowo's presidency is also worrying for many, who say he has never been held accountable for the kidnapping and killing of pro-democracy student activists decades ago.

A young voter, who did not want to reveal her name, said she was “terrified” by his victory: “If he can be an accomplice in silencing voices, he will silence those voices now if he is elected.”

She says that “attractiveness” hardly makes a leader qualified. “If this is what you think a leader should be, then you should elect kittens.”

Jimui, a cat-loving group from Indonesia

The cats are also part of Mr Prabowo's social media campaign. The brown-and-white stray Bobby has his own Instagram account which he describes as “patriotic.”

Then there are the TikTok videos of Mr. Prabowo doing his signature move — an awkward move across the stage — or shooting hearts into the audience. The gushing response dubbed him a “gemoy,” a nickname for all things adorable and adorable. His young supporters call themselves the “Jimwe Squad.”

Image source, Getty Images

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Mr Prabowo, 72, is campaigning in Bali ahead of the election

Social media was the cornerstone of its spread. Millennials and Generation Z make up more than half of Indonesia's 205 million eligible voters – and they also represent many of the 167 million social media-using Indonesians.

Prabowo's official Facebook accounts and his affiliated accounts spent $144,000 on ads during the past three months, according to Meta data. This is approximately twice what Mr. Prannow spends, and three times what Mr. Baswedan spends.

“I rarely see the real picture of Prabowo,” said Yois C Kinawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya University.

Instead, the Internet, drawing rooms and streets are filled with posters of Mr Prabowo as a chubby cartoon character. This new “avatar”… is spread throughout Indonesia, Kinawas says. “This is how they soften his image. So far, it's been very successful.”

A spokesman for Mr Prabowo's campaign said they were just trying to attract young people with a “fun” campaign. “Politics can be conveyed through different methods… and that's not a bad thing,” Dedik Prayodi told the BBC.

Generation Z voter Rahayu Sartika Dewi says she is attracted to Mr Prabowo's plans to develop the renewable energy and agriculture sectors. She described the campaign as “very nice, fun and friendly… not too heavy like in previous years.”

Prabowo ran for president, and lost, in 2014 and 2019. But this campaign was markedly different.

“The logic is that Prabowo's losses were, at least in part, due to his strongman image and controversial style alienating parts of the electorate,” says Dr Eve Warburton, director of the Australian National University's Indonesia Institute.

Mr Prabowo is also targeting a generation that does not remember the time when it reached the peak of its power. It happened during the dictatorship of General Suharto, who was forced from office in 1998. His 32-year rule, which many Indonesians credit with modernizing the country, was also a period of brutal repression and bloodshed.

Twenty-five years later, young voters say they prefer to judge Prabowo on how he handles unemployment and the cost of living. He promised to provide 19 million new job opportunities over the next five years.

“I know activists are still speaking out… but we have to move forward,” Joshua says.

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The cartoon characters of Mr. Prabowo (left) and Mr. Gibran (right) are scattered throughout Indonesia

Mr Prabowo's campaign has denied the accusations, although he was dismissed from the army for his alleged role in the activists' disappearance. In 2014 it is He told Al Jazeera He ordered their kidnapping, but he only did so on the orders of his superiors.

In recent months, videos have emerged of people shedding tears and expressing their sympathy for him, saying that he “was a victim of his opponents.” They often include young people, and some election observers question whether these are real supporters.

Ms. Dewey says his presidential nomination is “proof” that he has shaken off these accusations.

Mr. Prabowo was born into a wealthy political family, the son of a famous economist who served in the Indonesian government.

He followed in the footsteps of his father, who left the country in 1957 amid a cloud of controversy, and spent a decade of his childhood in exile in Europe.

After returning to his homeland, he joined the army and quickly rose through the ranks to become commander of Indonesia's elite special forces, Kopassus.

By then he had already been accused of human rights violations in troubled East Timor, where he worked as a member of the unit. His precise role in the military operations in East Timor, which claimed hundreds of lives, has not been proven, and he denies these accusations. But the mysterious blot on his career remained.

He married one of Suharto's daughters and remained in the dictator's inner circle. As Suharto's rule collapsed in the late 1990s, Kopassus was accused of kidnapping more than 20 student activists who opposed the regime. At least twelve of them are still missing and feared dead. The survivors claimed that they were tortured.

Mr. Prabowo was discharged from the army, went into self-imposed exile in Jordan, was blacklisted in Australia, and banned from traveling to the United States.

But he returned in 2019, when Widodo appointed him defense minister, turning rivals into allies. The surprise move came in the wake of a bitter election victory – with Mr Prabowo blaming his loss on cheating – and violent protests that left eight people dead.

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Mr. Gibran (left) is the eldest son of current President Mr. Widodo

“How can we expect justice if the perpetrator becomes president?” he asked. asks Sosiwati, the widow of a prominent human rights lawyer. Mounir Saeed Taleb spent most of his life investigating the disappearances that occurred in 1998. He was assassinated in 2004 on a plane. The pilot was convicted, but Sosiwati doesn't think that's the full story.

She says a Prabowo presidency “would be an extraordinary defeat for us, the families of the victims and human rights activists.”

Some say Widodo's support has helped restore Prabowo's image. Kinawas adds that social media is “not enough,” and “the way state agencies supported his campaign should not be underestimated…”

Many point to his running mate and Widodo's son, Mr. Gibran. The Constitutional Court, where Widodo's son-in-law is president, has controversially cleared the way for the 36-year-old Widodo to run for vice president, as Indonesian law requires him to be older.

What also worries many is the return of “old Prabowo,” known for his hot temper and volatile personality.

Dr. Warburton says some of his recent public appearances indicate that.

“No one knows how Prabowo will rule,” she says. “He may be a hands-off president who is more concerned with the prestige and pageantry of office; but most who know him well stress his unpredictable personality. This is never good for governing.”

Additional reporting by Nikki Widadeo and Amal Azur

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