Indonesian defense chief linked to past rights abuses claims victory in presidential election

A man gestures with his palms together.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures after casting his vote during the election in Bojong Koneng on Feb. 14, 2024.
(Vincent Thian / Associated Press)

A former general linked to past human rights abuses claimed victory Wednesday in Indonesia’s presidential election, a result that would raise questions about the commitment to democratic values in the sprawling island nation that is the world’s third-largest democracy.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, 72, presented himself as an heir to immensely popular sitting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, whose son was the candidate’s running mate. Citing unofficial results, Subianto told thousands of supporters in the capital, Jakarta, that his victory was “the victory of all Indonesians.”

There was no declaration by electoral officials, and the two former provincial governors who also competed in the balloting did not concede defeat.


Subianto, who was once banned from entering the United States for two decades because of his human rights record, was an army general during the brutal Suharto dictatorship, which ended just over 25 years ago in the archipelago between the Pacific and Indian oceans. He served as a special forces commander in a unit linked to torture and disappearances, allegations that he vehemently denies.

According to unofficial tallies conducted by Indonesian polling agencies, Subianto had between 57% and 59% of votes, with more than 80% of the vote counted in polling places sampled.

The quick counts are based on actual votes at a sample of polling stations across Indonesia. The laborious official count may take up to a month, but quick tallies have provided an accurate picture of the results of all four presidential elections held in Indonesia since it began direct voting in 2004.

“We should not be arrogant, we should not be proud, we should not be euphoric, we still have to be humble, this victory must be a victory for all Indonesian people,” Subianto said in a speech broadcast on national television from a sports stadium.

To avoid a runoff against his rivals — former provincial governors Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo — Subianto needs more than 50% of all votes cast and at least 20% in each of the country’s provinces.

Jokowi’s successor will inherit an economy with impressive growth and ambitious infrastructure projects, including the ongoing transfer of the nation’s capital from congested Jakarta to the frontier island of Borneo at a staggering cost exceeding $30 billion.


The election also has high stakes for the United States and China, as Indonesia has a huge domestic market, natural resources such as nickel and palm oil, and diplomatic influence with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Jokowi’s rise from a riverside slum to the presidency has shown the vibrancy of Indonesia’s democracy in a region rife with authoritarian regimes.

But with a leading candidate linked to a former dictator, and Jokowi’s son on the ballot, some observers fear that democracy is eroding.

Indonesians voted Wednesday in an election that took just six hours. The logistics of the vote across the tropical nation’s 17,000 islands inhabited by 270 million people were daunting: Ballot boxes and ballots were transported by boats, motorcycles, horses and on foot in some of the more far-flung locations.

Aside from the presidency, about 20,000 national, provincial and district parliamentary posts were contested by tens of thousands of candidates in one of the world’s largest elections, which authorities said concluded with no major problems. About 10,000 aspirants from 18 political parties eyed the national parliament’s 580 seats alone.

Voters expressed hope their next leader would help them achieve greater prosperity in a country where nearly a tenth of the population still lives in poverty.


“I hope Indonesia can progress better and that I did not vote for the wrong person,” said Indra Nurohim, a 17-year-old high school student and first-time voter. “I hope we will have a better government.”

Subianto, the oldest presidential candidate, lost in two previous runs to Jokowi but was the front-runner in independent surveys. He picked the president’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice presidential running mate.

Raka, 36, was allowed to run when the Constitutional Court made an exception to the minimum age requirement of 40. The court was then headed by the president’s brother-in-law, who was removed by an ethics panel for not recusing himself, and Jokowi was accused of favoritism and nepotism.

Critics have accused Jokowi of trying to build a political dynasty despite being the first president to emerge from outside the political and military elite since the 1998 end of Suharto’s dictatorship, characterized by widespread human rights violations, plunder and political unrest.

Subianto, a former lieutenant general who married one of Suharto’s daughters, was a longtime commander in the army special forces, called Kopassus. He was dishonorably discharged in 1998 after Kopassus forces kidnapped and tortured political opponents of Suharto.

Of at least 22 activists kidnapped that year, 13 remain missing, and their families protest weekly outside the presidential palace demanding that the activists be accounted for. Subianto never faced a trial and denied any involvement, although several of his men were tried and convicted.


During the campaign period that concluded last weekend, Subianto and his strategists used artificial intelligence and social media platforms such as TikTok to soften his image by portraying him as a cuddly grandfather to his youthful running mate. Rejected by human rights activists, he danced on the campaign stage and promised to generate nearly 20 million jobs in his first term if elected.

Baswedan, the former head of an Islamic university, served as governor of Jakarta until last year. A former Fulbright scholar, he was education and culture minister from 2014 to 2016, when Jokowi removed him from the Cabinet after accusing him of failing to address problems of thousands of students affected by forest fires.

Baswedan opposes Jokowi’s plan to move the Indonesian capital from Jakarta to Nusantara on Borneo island, which involves constructing government buildings and residential enclaves by clearing lush tropical rainforests. In an interview with the AP last month, he said democracy in Indonesia is under threat, given Subianto’s choice of the president’s son as running mate.

Pranowo is the governing party candidate but does not have Jokowi’s support. He was a national legislator for the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle for 10 years before being elected in 2013 for the first of two terms as governor of the vote-rich Central Java region.

While governor, Pranowo refused to allow Israel to participate in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup to be held in his province. FIFA subsequently dropped Indonesia as host of the games, angering Indonesian soccer fans and Jokowi. Israel and Indonesia, the world’s largest majority-Muslim nation, do not have diplomatic ties.

Under Jokowi, Indonesia saw a period of remarkable growth averaging 5% annually, except in 2020, when the economy contracted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


His economic road map, called “Golden Indonesia 2045,” projects the nation becoming one of the world’s top five economies with a gross domestic product of up to $9 trillion, exactly a century after it won independence from Dutch colonizers.