The Platform


The election was the easy part. Now comes the hard part for Prabowo Subianto. He has to govern Indonesia as its next president.

On February 14, in the heart of Southeast Asia, Indonesia’s political tides turned. Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a figure once mired in military controversy, having been accused of committing human rights abuses under the Suharto regime, emerged as the nation’s president-elect, securing a commanding electoral mandate. With approximately three-quarters of the vote accounted for, Prabowo and his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka—the son of the outgoing President Joko Widodo—have garnered nearly 59% of the popular vote.

Prabowo’s ascent is emblematic of a narrative pivot, one that leverages his “dancing grandpa” charm and aligns with President Widodo’s policy playbook—a move that reassures investors and bolsters economic optimism. Yet, amidst this continuity lies the intrigue of Prabowo’s own strategic vision.

Under President Joko Widodo, known colloquially as Jokowi, Indonesia’s economy expanded with resilience, boasting a near 5% annual growth, save for the pandemic’s upheaval. This era saw an upswing in foreign investment, especially within the burgeoning nickel sector, buoyed by the government’s robust infrastructure investments.

The Prabowo-Gibran ticket’s rise, while partially shadowed by criticism of Jokowi’s leadership, now faces the formidable task of carving out an independent legacy—possibly reducing Gibran’s prominence despite campaign assurances of policy consistency, particularly the ambitious Nusantara plan.

Prabowo has committed to a slew of economic and welfare initiatives, aiming to resonate with the electorate’s core concerns. He has proposed a push for biofuel development, hospital construction in each municipality, agricultural expansion, and the ambitious creation of 19 million jobs coupled with an 8% annual growth target.

His primary policy proposal, a $29 billion program providing free lunches and milk to schoolchildren and expectant mothers, comes alongside a significant increase in defense spending—thereby adding to the fiscal challenges of Jokowi’s legacy, including the $29 billion capital relocation project.

Fiscal prudence is under scrutiny as observers closely watch for financial vulnerabilities, particularly in light of China’s strategic role as a lender willing to provide short-term fiscal support.

Prabowo’s human rights record and defense acquisitions will undoubtedly provoke domestic criticism, yet national security and future prosperity remain the electorate’s paramount concerns.

Throughout the election, anti-China sentiment was largely muted, signaling Prabowo as the pragmatic choice for maintaining a balanced regional power dynamic through quiet diplomacy—a strategy befitting Indonesia’s significant economic ties with China, its largest trading partner and a major investor in its industrialization efforts.

Prabowo stands before the daunting task of preserving Indonesia’s economic sovereignty while navigating potential retaliations from China, which could diminish Indonesia’s bargaining power. His administration must sustain the nation’s non-alignment stance, balancing the interests of both China and the West to ensure strategic autonomy.

The Western response to Prabowo’s administration will be pivotal, as it seeks to engage Indonesia in a broader democratic alliance against China’s influence, without compromising democratic principles and human rights—a delicate dance for the third-largest democracy, positioned as a linchpin in the Indo-Pacific’s democratic network.

Amidst this geopolitical tapestry, Prabowo must strengthen Indonesia’s military capabilities without becoming ensnared in the Beijing-Washington rivalry. This quest entails a careful alignment with Washington and its allies, including the Quad members, while maintaining an independent regional influence through ASEAN.

Prabowo’s tenure will require a delicate balance: reinforcing Jakarta’s defense, navigating economic interdependencies, and fostering strategic partnerships—all while crafting an assertive global role for Indonesia that transcends regional boundaries.

In this intricate geopolitical game, Vietnam emerges as a key ally, sharing similar strategic conundrums with Indonesia. Prabowo’s commitment to deepening ties with Hanoi, through economic and security collaboration, symbolizes a strategic pivot in Southeast Asia—a region increasingly defined by its ability to maintain sovereignty amidst superpower tensions.

As Prabowo steps into his role, his policies must adapt to the realities beyond campaign rhetoric. The challenges awaiting Indonesia’s third-largest democracy are many, and it will take more than strategic acumen to address them—it will require a visionary blend of pragmatism and idealism.

Prabowo is poised to build upon President Jokowi’s initial steps, intensifying efforts to strengthen economic and security alliances with Hanoi. This strategy involves utilizing agreements and other trust-building initiatives to foster robust, trust-based collaborations in both the security and economic spheres. Complementary strategies are also on the table, encompassing food and energy security and forging a novel economic corridor anchored in smart agriculture and the embrace of an emergent energy transition. This corridor is designed to catalyze advancements in digital and green economies. Both nations stand to benefit from pooling their strategic assets, particularly in response to China’s dwindling economic growth and the anticipated pivot of Beijing towards more assertive regional policies as a counterbalance to its internal socio-economic challenges.

However, the horizon presents a complex tapestry for Prabowo. The elasticity of his policies and his nimble approach to diplomacy, while promising, will be rigorously tested against the intricate realities on the ground. For the world’s third-largest democracy, translating strategic vision into concrete outcomes will demand more than diplomatic finesse and political maneuvering; it will require navigating an increasingly intricate geopolitical landscape with both precision and tact.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.