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Ex-general Prabowo Subianto claims victory in Indonesia's presidential election

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister, addresses supporters at an event Wednesday in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Oscar Siagian
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Getty Images
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister, addresses supporters at an event Wednesday in Jakarta, Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian Defense Minister and former general Prabowo Subianto, who had been barred from entering the United States for two decades, has claimed victory in Wednesday's presidential election.

The current exit poll showed the 72-year-old former special forces commander with an absolute majority of votes, above the threshold of 50% nationwide, and 20% in half of the country's provinces, without which a runoff vote would be required.

At polling stations in Jakarta, ballots were pulled out of boxes by hand, read aloud and tallied by election workers. It is a labor-intensive task performed in a country of more than 200 million eligible voters spread across an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

Analysts say this week's high-stakes election in Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, may decide whether its democracy maintains its trajectory of economic development and political reform, or slides back toward the authoritarian politics of a generation ago.

Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S.

Election officials have not yet formally declared Prabowo the winner. But in a victory speech, Prabowo professed inclusiveness and conciliation, saying he would "protect all citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or social background."

Prabowo also declared an end to "strong words and hostile approach." His comments were aimed at Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, two former provincial governors who ran against him in the presidential race.

Accompanying Prabowo at the speech was his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming, mayor of Surakarta city, and the 36-year-old eldest son of incumbent President Joko Widodo.

Is the election "a referendum on Widodoism"?

One of the striking features of this election was the country's youngest-ever electorate, with more than half the voters being either millennials or Generation Z voters, born after 1980 and 1996, respectively.

Prabowo's campaign portrayed him as a cuddly dancing grandpa. Some analysts say this strategy appears to have been key to his success.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his wife Iriana cast their votes during the presidential and legislative elections at a polling station at the State Administration Agency in Jakarta on Wednesday.
Mas Agung Wilis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his wife Iriana cast their votes during the presidential and legislative elections at a polling station at the State Administration Agency in Jakarta on Wednesday.

But Kevin O'Rourke, principal at Reformasi Information Services, a consulting firm, says the deciding factor may have been the endorsement of President Widodo, whose infrastructure building, health, education and welfare policies remain highly popular.

"The promise of Prabowo providing continuity for Widodoism — a promise made by Widodo himself implicitly, if not explicitly — was the deciding factor for Prabowo," O'Rourke says.

"The election was really a referendum on Widodoism," O'Rourke argues, "and Widodo sold Prabowo to the public."

Will Prabowo continue Widodo's policies?

One possible problem, though, is that some of the current leader's progressive policies may clash with Prabowo's authoritarian leanings, analysts say.

Widodo also known in Indonesia as Jokowi came to office promising to address the human rights abuses committed during the 32-year-long dictatorship of former general Suharto, and he has expressed regret and given assistance to some of Suharto's victims.

Prabowo is Suharto's son-in-law, and Indonesia's military removed Prabowo in 1998 for his role in the killing and torturing of Suharto's opponents, including political activists and opponents of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor. Prabowo has denied the abuses.

The United States had barred Prabowo from entering the country in 2020 for alleged human rights abuses until 2020, when former President Donald Trump's administration welcomed him to Washington.

So while Widodo seems to be ensuring continuity by positioning Prabowo as his successor, with the incumbent's son as vice president, Prabowo may not in fact continue Widodo's policies and protect his legacy.

"The family dynasty that takes over eventually won't necessarily be Widodo's," says O'Rourke. "It could very well be Prabowo's."

Yosef Riadi contributed to this report in Jakarta.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.