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Oligarchic Populism: Prabowo Subianto’s Challenge to Indonesian Democracy



In 2014, Indonesian democracy came close to experiencing significant regression when Prabowo Subianto missed winning the presidential election by 6.5 percentage points. Prabowo, a leading hard-line general during the final years of the Suharto regime, aimed to wind back important elements of Indonesia's democratic reforms. This article analyzes the ideological and material foundations of Prabowo's challenge, and its implications for Indonesian democracy. It argues that Prabowo presented a classically populist challenger, advancing an economic nationalist platform and depicting himself as embodying the popular will and as a strong leader who would smash through the corruption gripping the political elite. Prabowo mounted this challenge using economic and political resources that he derived from his position as a leading oligarch. A member of a prominent Suharto-era elite family, his campaign underlined the fusion of informal political and economic power that continues to characterize Indonesia's oligarchy. His campaign, moreover, was supported by a wide array of established parties and entrenched economic interests, pointing not so much to the vulnerability of Indonesian democracy to outsider challenge as to the fragility of many of its core participants' commitment to democratic values and procedures.
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Oligarchic Populism: Prabowo Subianto's Challenge to Indonesian Democracy
Author(s): Edward Aspinall
No. 99 (April 2015), pp. 1-28
Published by: Southeast Asia Program Publications at Cornell University
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Indonesia 99 (April 2015)
Edward Aspinall
In 2014, Indonesia faced its most severe threat of authoritarian regression since the
transition to democratic rule began in 1998. Prabowo Subianto, a general with a fiercely
reactionary record under the Suharto regime, and with a party platform that implied
rolling back key democratic reforms, came within 6.3 percentage points of winning the
July 9 presidential election. In this essay I examine Prabowo Subianto’s background
and the nature of his political appeal, explore how he came so close to winning the
presidency, and analyze the implications of his campaign for Indonesian democracy.
Prabowo represented a classically authoritarian-populist challenge of a sort that is
common in democratic regimes characterized by pervasive patronage politics, weak
institutions, and highly decentralized governance. Though familiar tropes of
Indonesian political conservatism were part of his appeal, they were not central to it.
Instead, Prabowo’s critique of current political arrangements drew on two major
sources. First, he invoked nationalism, describing Indonesia’s poor economic
conditions as a product of the country’s exploitation by foreign powers. Second, he
condemned the corruption of political elites and the environment of deceit and money
Edward Aspinall is a professor in the department of political and social change, Coral Bell School of Asia
Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.
My thanks to Fajran Zain and Thomas Power for research assistance that contributed to this article; to
Marcus Mietzner for his many insights through the course of the research; and to the Indonesia reviewers.
The Australian Research Council provided funding for the research upon which this article is based
through projects FT120100742 and DP140103114.
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Edward Aspinall
politics fostered by many politicians, presenting himself as an anti-political outsider
who could provide the strong leadership Indonesia needed.
When viewed comparatively, we can immediately categorize Prabowo as a
populist politician of a sort found in many countries. In contemporary usage, populism
is frequently defined in political terms (rather than as a particular class, or economic or
ideological formation, as was once popular). Hence, in Weyland’s formulation,
populism is apolitical strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises
government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from
large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.”
Such a strategy tends to be
associated with particular ideological markers: the leader typically claims to embody
personally the interests, preferences, and attitudes of the mass of the common folk, and
condemns the existing political establishment and institutions as self-serving and
hostile to popular interests. In addition, the populist leader claims to represent people
who feel excluded or marginalized from national political life” and promises “to rescue
them from crises, threats, and enemies.”
As shall be demonstrated in this article,
Prabowo fitted such criteria precisely. Indeed, were there a standard textbook on
populism, Prabowo might have been a faithful student, and it is possible he
consciously borrowed from leaders such as Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and
Venezualas Hugo Chavezfigures whom Prabowo has publicly stated he admires. At
the same time, as we shall see, Prabowo’s populism drew on the deep wellsprings of
Indonesian history.
Prabowo, however, exemplified a particular oligarchic populism: although he
condemned the political elite, he had quintessentially elite origins himself, and had
risen to a position of political prominence through the very oligarchic power relations
he critiqued. This combination seems counterintuitive, given that populists typically
discursively attack the oligarchs. Indeed, as Carlos de la Torre puts it, The peculiarity
of populist discourse is to frame politics as an antagonistic confrontation between the
people and the oligarchy.”
As we shall see, Prabowo adopted this framing. Yet, if we
think of oligarchs, following Winters, merely as “actors who command and control
massive concentrations of material resources,then it is not surprising that populists
are often drawn from the oligarchy.
Precisely because they run personalist tilts at
political power, populists frequently have to rely on their own financial resources, at
least initially, to fund their campaigns. Thus, populist politicians often have
backgrounds of fabulous personal wealth: think, for example, of Thailand’s Thaksin
Kurt Weyland, “Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics,”
Comparative Politics 34, no. 1 (October 2001): 14. For similar political definitions of populism, see, for
example: Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts, “Latin America’s “Left Turn’: A Framework for
analysis,” in The resurgence of the Latin American left, ed. Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011); and Kenneth M. Roberts, “Neoliberalism and the
Transformation of Populism in Latin America: The Peruvian Case,” World Politics 48 (1995): 82116.
Weyland, “Clarifying a Contested Concept,” 14. See also Roberts, “Neoliberalism and the Transformation
of Populism.”
Carlos de la Torre, “The Resurgence of Radical Populism in Latin America,” Constellations 14, no. 3 (2007):
Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 6.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 3
Shinawatra, who has been described as a “pluto-populist.”
As we shall see, Prabowo
fits the bill in this regard.
Even if we adopt a more demanding definition of oligarchs as a dominant class
arising from an informal fusion of state and economic power (as might be derived from
work on Indonesia by Robison and Hadiz
), Prabowo may still be characterized as an
oligarchic populist. He was a leading product of the Suharto regime’s ability to
transform members of leading bureaucratic families into apex capitalists. Equally
significant, his presidential campaign was organized using a pattern of cash-driven
informal networking of a sort that has facilitated oligarchic dominance in Indonesia’s
post-Suharto polity. The political forces Prabowo mobilized behind his presidential bid
were largely organized through clientelist linkages of a sort typical of mainstream
political organization, while a key to his political success was an ability to draw on vast
economic resources, ultimately traceable back to the privileges he and his family
enjoyed both during and after the Suharto era. Moreover, there was a close connection
between the nature of his political appeal and critique on the one hand, and the
foundation of his family wealth on the other. In particular, his nationalist posturing on
economic policy reflected the interests of a sector of Indonesian capital reliant on
natural resource extraction and rent seeking, in which he was a significant player. His
form of populism was one that articulated the interests of an extractive economic elite
in a boom period of commodity demand.
The rise of an authoritarian populist challenger like Prabowo was almost over-
determined in contemporary Indonesia. Populism, as observers of this phenomenon
elsewhere have long noted, typically arises when part of the population feels
disillusioned and disenfranchised from established political institutions, especially in
conditions of widespread patronage politics and corruption.
It is particularly likely in
patronage democracies in which decentralization of political and economic authority
disrupts lines of political control between the center and grassroots, upsetting both
policy delivery and central political control over the regionsconditions very much
present in Indonesia.
Moreover, a widespreadthough diffusemood of nostalgia
for the certainties of the New Order has long been present in Indonesia, lending further
weight to Prabowo’s appeal. At the same time, although Indonesia has long since
recovered from the worst impacts of the Asian financial crisis of 199798, many of the
social conditions that underpin populism elsewhere also obtain in Indonesia: though
poverty has been declining, about half of the population reside precariously in the
near-poor category, living on less than two dollars a day. As elsewhere, Indonesias
Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, “Pluto-Populism in Thailand: Business Remaking Politics,”
unpublished paper available at, accessed March
2, 2015.
Robison and Hadiz argue, for example, that in post-Suharto Indonesia, “access to and control of public
office and state authority continues to be the key determinant of how private wealth and social power is
accumulated and distributed.” See: Vedi R. Hadiz and Richard Robison, “The Political Economy of
Oligarchy and the Reorganization of Power in Indonesia,” in Beyond Oligarchy: Wealth, Power and
Contemporary Indonesian Politics, ed. Michele Ford and Thomas B. Pepinsky (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia
Program Publications, 2014), 35.
See, for example, Kenneth M. Roberts, “Social Correlates of Party System Demise and Populist
Resurgence in Venezuela,” Latin American Politics and Society 45, no. 3 (2003): 3557.
Paul D. Kenny, The Patronage Network: Broker Power, Populism, and Democracy in India (PhD dissertation,
Yale University, 2013).
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Edward Aspinall
economic growth of recent years has been accompanied by growing income
Finally, during the decade leading to Prabowo’s bid, Indonesia was ruled
by a president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was strongly criticized as a peragu, a
vacillator, unable to take decisive action on pressing issues. Yudhoyono thus
constituted the perfect foil for Prabowo’s promise of strong leadership.
Moreover, while the contemporary setting was propitious for a populist challenge,
it should be stressed also that populism has deep historical roots in Indonesia, which
Prabowo drew upon in fashioning his appeal. The most obviousand deliberately
forgedconnection was with the ideological and oratory style of Sukarno. Populism,
along with nationalism, was the ideological centerpiece of the Guided Democracy
(195765) regime, when Sukarno attempted to hold together the conflicting political
forces of that period by promoting belief ina spiritual union between himself and the
Rakjat [People], where the People werethe entire mass of Indonesians, the mystical
embodiment of all the nation.”
Populist themes later recurred in episodes of
opposition to the New Order regime, including the Islamic challenge mounted by the
Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (Unity Development Party) between roughly the late
1970s and late 1980s, and even more obviously in the 1990s during an upsurge of
public support for Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Soekarnoputri, who was seen by
many supporters as embodying the Rakyat’s desire for social and political change, even
while she did little to articulate those desires explicitly.
In the post-Suharto period,
meanwhile, invocations of the people,” condemnations of elite corruption,
propagation of economic nationalism, and rhetorical hostility to capitalism and
neoliberalism have all become the basic stuff of mainstream politics, even if the
politicians espousing such themes often lack conviction and charisma when delivering
their messages. As we shall see, Prabowo went much further than most elite politicians
in reworking such themes and delivering them with passion; it is important to stress
that in doing so he was delivering a historically resonant message.
The remainder of this article analyzes Prabowo’s political rise through five main
sections. The first two set the scene. The first section introduces his ascent to the
heights of power in the New Order regime, and his subsequent fall into political
disgrace, touching also on what we know about his personality. The second section
sketches the broad arc of his attempted political resurrection in post-Suharto
Indonesia. As we shall see, after returning from a period of self-imposed exile,
Prabowo spent some time attempting to secure control over existing political vehicles
before forming his own party in 2008 and then eventually mobilizing several parties
representing a majority of voters behind his presidential bid in 2014. This section also
analyzes Prabowo’s business interests and sources of financial power, locating one
crucial condition for his tilt at the presidency in the reconstitution of Indonesia’s
See, for example, Riyana Miranti, Yogi Vidyattama, Erick Hansnata, Rebecca Cassells, and Alan Duncan,
“Trends in Poverty and Inequality in Decentralising Indonesia,” OECD Social, Employment, and Migration
Working Papers, No. 148, OECD Publishing, 2013.
Ruth McVey, “Nationalism, Islam, and Marxism: The Management of Ideological Conflict in Indonesia,”
in Soekarno, Nationalism, Islam, and Marxism (Ithaca: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, 1970), 56.
For an interpretation of the PPP mobilization as populist, see John T. Sidel, Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious
Violence in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 5666. For a similar interpretation of Megawati’s
challenge to the late New Order, see Edward Aspinall, Opposing Suharto: Compromise, Resistance, and
Regime Change in Indonesia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 14576.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 5
oligarchy that occurred after the 199798 financial collapse. The third section describes
Prabowo’s ideological appeal in three parts: his nationalist vision, his critique of the
political establishment and promotion of himself as its antithesis, and the authoritarian
elements of his vision. A fourth section examines in greater detail his 2014 presidential
campaign and the nature of the political support he mobilized, illustrating the
clientelist and oligarchic foundations of Prabowo’s strategy and arguing that, although
his campaign was presented discursively as a challenge by an outsider, it was, in fact,
mounted from deep within the fabric of Indonesia’s established ruling elite. It should
be stressed, however, that the focus of this article is not the details of campaign
organization or chronology, but, rather, the deeper historical background and political
sources of Prabowo’s candidacy.
Finally, a fifth section spells out the implications of
Prabowo’s challenge to Indonesian democracy, suggesting that it highlights not so
much democracy’s vulnerability to outsider challenges as the fragility of insider
commitments to democratic institutions and procedures.
Prabowo’s Rise and Fall
Prabowo takes pride in being an outsider and maverick.”
For Robert Barr, a
political outsider is someone who gains political prominence not through or in
association with an established, competitive party, but as a political independent or in
association with new or newly competitive parties.”
In such narrowly political terms,
Prabowo fits the bill as an outsider, because although he initially tried to enter politics
through established political avenues, he eventually opted to establish a new,
personalist party. In other regards, however, Prabowo was the ultimate insider
representation of Indonesia’s power elite: the scion of a wealthy family, formerly one
of Indonesia’s most senior army officers, one of the country’s richest men, and the
former son-in-law of President Suharto. Ultimately, however, he was able plausibly to
claim outsider status given his fate in the immediate post-Suharto period, after he
became, in 199899, one of the country’s most disgraced political leaders. His
subsequent trajectory tracks the afterlife of Suharto’s New Order in Reformasi-era
As he has emphasized in many campaign speeches, writings, and other
promotional material, Prabowo came from a prominent political family. With a
Javanese priyayi aristocratic background, including having ancestors who played a role
in the so-called “Java War” against the Dutch (182530), Prabowo’s grandfather,
Margono Djojohadikoesoemo, was the founder of Bank Indonesia. His father, Sumitro
Djojohadikusumo, was one of Indonesia’s greatest economists, trained in the Sorbonne
and the Netherlands. An important PSI (Partai Sosialis Indonesia, Indonesian Socialist
Party) leader, he was a cabinet minister three times during the 1950s, before fleeing a
corruption investigation in 1957 and joining with the regional army rebels then based
For one excellent account of the campaign, see Marcus Mietzner, Reinventing Asian Populism: Jokowi’s Rise,
Democracy, and Political Contestation in Indonesia (Honolulu: East West Center, 2015).
Maria A Ressa, “Indonesia Elections: Prabowo and the Divine Revelation,” Al Jazeera, July 16, 2014,, accessed March 2, 2015.
Robert R. Barr, “Populists, Outsiders, and Anti-establishment Politics,” Party Politics 15, no. 1 (2009): 33.
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Edward Aspinall
in Sumatra.
Sumitro subsequently went into exile with his family, and was a major
fundraiser for the PRRI (Pemerintahan Revolusioner Republik Indonesia,
Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia) rebellion, promoting the
movement to sympathetic governments. This period of exile meant that Prabowo spent
his formative years (he was born in 1952) in exile in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia,
Britain, and Switzerland. Sumitro returned to Indonesia after the collapse of the
Sukarno government, and then served two more periods in Suharto’s cabinet, as
minister of trade and then minister of research, between 1968 and 1978.
Prabowo returned with his father to Indonesia at the dawn of the New Order, as a
young man, more comfortable speaking English than Indonesian, yet with powerful
ambitions. Prabowo joined the National Military Academy in Magelang in 1970,
graduating in 1974 after a year’s delay caused by disciplinary action for being absent
from the academy without leave. He spent his subsequent military career entirely
within the army’s elite units, the Special Forces Command (Komando Pasukan Khusus,
Kopassus) and the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Komando Cadangan Strategis
Angkatan Darat, Kostrad). He gained considerable experience in intelligence and
counterinsurgency operations, including in East Timor, where circumstantial evidence
suggests his involvement in massacres of civilians in the early 1980s, as well as various
other black operations.
He was also in command of troops responsible for abuses
against civilians in Aceh.
After he married President Suharto’s youngest daughter,
Siti Hediati Hariyadi, more commonly known as Titiek, in 1983, his career accelerated.
(According to some military associates, he increasingly acted outside the chain of
command from this time; for example, he frequently traveled to East Timor without
reporting to the local regional commander.)
In 1995, Prabowo became commander of
Kopassus and, expanding his influence over the regime’s intelligence apparatus, was
increasingly seen as the rising star within the army, attracting both camp followers and
rivals. As the Suharto government teetered on the brink of the precipice in March 1998,
he was appointed commander of Kostrad, the very position Suharto had used in 1965
to seize power during that year’s political crisis. It was not surprising, therefore, that
Prabowo would seek to take advantage of the position to advance himself when
Suharto’s regime was beset by crisis in 1998.
In the first five months of that year, as urban rioting and street demonstrations
escalated, Prabowo emerged as the leader of a palace guard of generals most willing to
use coercion to defend the regime or to position themselves to benefit from its demise.
Prabowo cultivated links with Islamist groups and helped fan anti-Chinese sentiment
Audrey R. Kahin and George McT. Kahin, Subversion as Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles
Debacle in Indonesia (New York: New Press, 1995), 70–71. An excellent account of the Djojohadikusumo
family in past and present Indonesian politics can be found in Jemma Purdey, “Narratives to Power: The
Case of the Djojohadikusumo Family Dynasty over Four Generations,” paper presented to the Political
Dynasty in Southeast Asia workshop, Flinders University, Adelaide, November 16, 2013.
See: Gerry van Klinken, “Prabowo and Human Rights,” Inside Indonesia 116 (AprilJune 2014), http://, accessed March 2, 2015; and Made Supriatma,
“Prabowo Subianto Di Mata Seorang Gubernur Daerah Pendudukan,” Indoprogres, July 1, 2014,,
accessed March 2, 2015.
Geoffrey Robinson, “Rawan Is as Rawan Does: The Origins of Disorder in New Order Aceh,” Indonesia
66 (October 1998): 14041.
“Saya Mengeset Penyergapan Prabowo,” Tempo, July 6, 2014: 51.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 7
in the lead-up to the riots.
It is widely believed that Prabowo was behind the Trisakti
shootings of May 12, 1998, and that he played a role in masterminding or at least
facilitating the subsequent street rioting in Jakarta, although no conclusive evidence
has been presented to support those claims.
Where there was incontrovertible
evidence, however, was in the kidnapping of twenty-three anti-government activists,
thirteen of whom remain missing and are presumed dead, by a Tim Mawar (Rose
Team) established by Prabowo. In 1999 a military court tried and punished eleven
Kopassus officers and soldiers for the kidnappings; their military careers, however,
were not subsequently harmed.
Once Suharto resigned and was replaced by B. J. Habibie on May 21, 1998,
Prabowo immediately tried to strengthen his and his faction’s position, but overplayed
his hand. In Habibies account, hours after Habibie’s inauguration, Prabowo personally
confronted him and tried to gain promotions for Prabowo supporters within the
military. The next morning, Habibie received reports that Kostrad troops from outside
the city were moving toward Jakarta and that troops were gathering at his residence
and the presidential palace, all without the knowledge of Armed Forces Commander
General Wiranto.
Habibie immediately ordered that Prabowo be removed from his
post as Kostrad commander, triggering another visit from Prabowo and another
personal confrontation. Prabowo told Habibie his dismissal was an insult to both
Prabowo’s family and Suharto’s family and appealed in the name of my father, Prof.
Soemitro Djojohadikusumo, and my father-in-law, President Soeharto” to be
Habibie did not relent, and two months later Prabowo was tried by a
military honor council and expelled from the military for his role in the
aforementioned kidnappings and other acts of indiscipline, including security
operations performed outside the chain of command in Aceh, Papua, and East Timor,
and for traveling overseas without permission.
It must have been humiliating for Prabowo to find himself in this position. From
being a top politico-military player, his star plummeted and he was, by late 1998, one
of the most reviled figures in the country. Arguably, only Suharto and some of his
children were held in lower regard by the public. In this context, Prabowo decided to
leave Indonesia and lived for several years in Jordan, where he was reported to be
close to King Abdullah II and where he represented the business interests of his
John T. Sidel, “Macet Total: Logics of Circulation and Accumulation in the Demise of Indonesia’s New
Order,” Indonesia 66 (October 1998): 182.
Prabowo himself has a version of events that sheets the blame home on his great rival, then Armed
Forces Commander Wiranto; see Jose Manuel Tesoro, “The Scapegoat?” Asiaweek, March 3, 2000.
Made Supriatma, “Melacak Tim Mawar,” Indoprogres, May 27, 2014,
2014/05/melacak-tim-mawar/, accessed March 2, 2015.
See: Marcus Mietzner, Military Politics, Islam, and the State in Indonesia: From Turbulent Transition to
Democratic Consolidation (Singapore: Institutes of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009), 13435; Bacharuddin
Jusuf Habibie, Detik-Detik yang Menentukan: Jalan Panjang Indonesia Menuju Demokrasi (Jakarta: THC
Mandiri, 2006), 8283.
Ibid., 102.
The report of the Honor Council was leaked by former military rivals in 2014 who believed that, by
showing how Prabowo had disregarded institutional control within the military, it underlined his
unfitness to be president; see: “Valid, Surat Rekomendasi Pemecatan Prabowo,” Tempo, June 10, 2014,
Prabowo, accessed March 2, 2015.
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Edward Aspinall
brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo. Prabowo pointedly ignored calls to return home
when a military tribunal found the eleven Kopassus soldiers guilty in the kidnapping
A strong thread that emerges from the arc of Prabowo’s career so far is the
powerful sense of entitlement and utter self-confidence that motivates him. Those traits
are visible from his very early life and presumably derived from his unusual family
background and education, and reinforced by subsequent experiences. Prabowo
frequently explains that his family background and career provided him with a public-
service orientation:
My brother and I, we both have aristocratic titles, but that being said, we’re both
very conscious of social justice. One of the things I always remember our
grandfather sayingyou know, there’s a term in French, noblesse obligewith
one’s status comes responsibility. And my brother feels that and so do I. You
know, that’s something we inherited from our grandfather and the family
But it is a sense of entitlement rather than service that helps explain Prabowo’s long
record of disregard for rules and institutions, beginning during his time at the military
academy, but evident throughout his military career.
This strong sense of entitlement also helps explain the forcefulness of Prabowo’s
presidential ambitions, and the anger he repeatedly expressed throughout 2014 when
those ambitions were frustrated.
Prabowo has told the media that he only made the
decision to try to become president in 2002, though some personal associates have
suggested he had expressed this ambition as a child.
In fact, Prabowo must have felt
himself tantalizingly close to attaining the presidency in 1998, only to have it yanked
away from him by his enemies. His recollections of this time are full of bitterness about
being betrayed by Wiranto and other rivals, and he frequently describes himself as a
“victim” or “fall guy” of reformasi. Indeed, this obsessiveness with personal betrayal
and victimhoodvery much apparent in his campaign speeches in 2014is
apparently at the core of his personality. Explaining his love for his animals (he is often
photographed in affectionate poses with his pedigree horses), he told one journalist:
When we grow up and see human nature, there’s betrayal, perfidy, lying But
some of these animals are very basic. You give love to them, they give love back.
You are loyal to them. They are loyal to you.
Presumably, this demand for strong personal loyalty is connected to another of
Prabowo’s personality traits, one that eventually came to be seen as an electoral
liability. He reportedly has a propensity for outbursts of rage that sometimes involve
See, for example, “Prabowo Ignores Wiranto’s Call to Go Home,” Indonesian Observer, April 16, 1999.
Geoff Thompson, “The Farmer Wants a Country,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation Foreign
Correspondent Story, March 31, 2009,
prabowo_hi.asx, accessed March 18, 2015.
See especially his July 25, 2014, speech, “Pesan Video Prabowo Subianto,”
watch?v=S9pfcbCzprU, accessed March 2, 2015.
“Komandan Cilik di Dalkeith Road,” Tempo, July 6, 2014: 47.
Ben Bland, “Lunch with the FT: Prabowo Subianto,” Financial Times, June 28, 2013,
cms/s/2/7024de00-de5b-11e2-b990-00144feab7de.html#ixzz3JHLtnAa6, accessed March 2, 2015.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 9
physical violence, with reports circulating widely of him throwing cellphones,
ashtrays, and even punches when angered by his associates or underlings.
Clearly, Prabowo has an unusually powerful personality; this aspect of him has
fascinated and alarmed observers since the New Order years. As one unnamed
Western defense attac told a journalist back in 1998, He’s the most charismatic,
enigmatic, unusual and weird guy I’ve ever known in my life He’s also laudable
and detestable Pick an adjective and it fits.
This charismatic weirdness, as we
shall see, was critical to Prabowo’s approach as a presidential candidate.
Prabowo’s Resurrection
By 2003, Prabowo had returned to Indonesia. His first attempt at a political career
came through Partai Golkar (Golongan Karya, Functional Groups), the old political
party of the Suharto regime. In April 2004, the party held a convention to select its
candidate for Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections later that year. Prabowo
himself described his run at this post as a learning experience, and he placed last out of
five candidates, with only 39 out of the 547 convention votes, a result largely
attributable to the superior organizational and vote-buying power of his rivals.
In his
speeches prior to the convention he was already emphasizing economic nationalist,
anti-corruption, and rural themes that were to become central to his political posturing,
even if he did not then have the vehemence he gained in later years.
Also in 2004, Prabowo began to establish links with other networks that later
became important for his subsequent political campaigning. The most important was
HKTI (Himpunan Kerukunan Tani Indonesia, Indonesian Harmony Association of
Farmers), the old rural mass organization of Golkar, and a useful platform from which
to access a rural audience and strike a posture of sympathy towards farmers. Over
subsequent years he reached out to many such networks, for example, becoming the
chairperson of APPSI (Asosiasi Pedagang Pasar Seluruh Indonesia, All-Indonesia
Association of Market Traders) and targeting a variety of organizations, such as
veterans associations, labor unions, and organizations of village heads, which could
provide him with access to a mass base.
In 2008, Prabowo took another major step, creating a political party entirely
controlled by loyalists and motivated by the single goal of helping him become
president. The Partai Gerindra (Gerakan Indonesia Raya, Greater Indonesia
See, for example, “PPP Tarik Dukungan, Prabowo Lempar Ponsel,” Tempo, April 29, 2014, http://www., accessed
March 2, 2015. In 2014, former factional rivals from within the military described these personality flaws
openly, with one, A. M. Hendropriyono (himself a man with a bad human rights record), denouncing
Prabowo as a “psychopath.”
Cindy Shiner, “Once Powerful Son-in-Law of Suharto Under Fire,The Washington Post, August 12, 1998,
cited in Adam Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia’s Search for Security (St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin,
1999), 336.
See, for example, “Catatan-catatan dari Konvensi Partai Golkar,” Pelita, April 21, 2004, http://www., accessed March 2, 2015.
See, for example, “Prabowo: Petani Rindu Soeharto,” Jawa Pos, August 25, 2003.
See, for example, “Prabowo Merapat ke PAN,” Jawa Pos, July 17, 2005, which details an attempt to take
over a transportation association affiliated to PAN.
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Edward Aspinall
Movement) was established on an economic nationalist and populist platform, with
key leadership positions filled by Prabowo’s personal supporters and business
associates. These included several comrades from his Kopassus days, such as General
Muchdi, who had recently been triedbut acquittedfor the 2004 murder of the
famous human rights activist, Munir. However, despite a strong campaign of media
advertising (between October 2008 and February 2009, AC Nielsen estimated
Gerindra’s spending on advertising far exceeded even that of President Yudhoyonos
Partai Demokrat),
Gerindra was only able to get 4.5 percent of the popular vote in the
April 2009 legislative election, far short of the 20 percent it needed to nominate a
presidential candidate. Though Prabowo tried to pull together a coalition that would
support his presidential bid, he had to accept a vice-presidential nomination on the
ticket of Megawati Soekarnoputri. Though this outcome angered Prabowo, in fact the
ticket proved to be an excellent platform for promoting his public profile. Megawati
and Prabowo were decisively defeated by Yudhoyono in the first round of the
presidential election in July 2009, but over subsequent years Prabowo’s place in
national opinion polls of preferred presidential candidates never dropped far below 20
percent, considerably higher than any other likely candidate and making him the most
popular politician in the country after President Yudhoyonoat least until Jokowi
began to register in national polls from late 2013.
Before examining ideological aspects of Prabowos appeal, it is important to note
that Prabowo’s dramatic entry onto the public political stage in 200809 was made
possible by his massive expenditure of wealth. This was most obvious in the media
campaign to promote Prabowo and Gerindra in 200809, with one Gerindra official
estimating that it cost Prabowo’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, $US100 million.
Funding the Gerindra organization, too, was a major drain on the brothers’ finances,
and even Prabowo’s dominance in organizations such as HKTI must have been costly,
requiring at least sponsorship of participants at congresses and other events.
What were the sources of these funds? The major backer of Prabowo’s political
ambitions has always been his brother, Hasjim Djojohadikusmo. Already established
as one of the wealthiest non-Chinese businesspeople in the country by the end of the
Suharto era, in 2009 he ranked twenty-first on the Forbes list of the country’s wealthiest
individuals, with an estimated worth of US$500 million. He was number thirty-two in
2011, with an estimated $790 million, and dropped slightly to forty-second in 2013,
with an estimated $700 million. (Some Indonesian news sources speculated that the fall
between 2011 and 2013 was a mark of the resources Hashim had been pumping into
Prabowo’s campaign.). His ranking rose again to number thirty-nine in 2014 (with an
estimated $825 million).
Prabowo, too, is very wealthy in his own right, living
“Partai Desimal dan Anak Ideologi,” Tempo, April 13, 2009.
Dirk Tomsa, “The Eagle has Crash-landed,” Inside Indonesia 97 (2009),
feature-editions/the-eagle-has-crash-landed, accessed March 2, 2105.
See, for example, “Prabowo versus Oesman Sapta di HKTI 2010-2015,”, July 15, 2010,,
accessed March 2, 2105.
For these Forbes rankings, see the following (accessed March 2, 2015):
lists/2011/80/indonesia-billionaires-11_Hashim-Djojohadikusumo_3HVQ.html; and http://www.forbes.
com/profile/hashim-djojohadikusumo/. For a piece speculating that political support had contributed to
the drop, see “Topang Prabowo, Kekayaan Hashim Terus Melorot,” Tempo, November 22, 2013,
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 11
ostentatiously on a hillside ranch outside Jakarta, owning super-expensive polo ponies,
and traveling in a private jet and helicopter. His wealth has multiplied significantly
over the last decade. In 2003, his net worth, as reported to the KPK (Komisi
Pemberantasan Korupsi, Corruption Eradication Commission), wasgiven his status
and standingan implausibly low ten billion rupiah (US$840,000). In 2009, this figure
increased by a factor of 160 to 1.6 trillion rupiah (US$135 million), and to about 1.7
trillion (US$143 million) in 2014.
These figures must, of course, be taken with a large
grain of salt, but they probably point to considerable improvement of Prabowo’s
private fortune leading to the period when he became serious about his political
ambitions. Prabowo’s personal business interestsalthough it is unclear how closely
these are intertwined with those of his brothercover areas including coal mining, oil
palm, timber, pulp and paper, fisheries, and oil trading.
The source of the brothers’ wealthas was the case for the family members of
other senior officials during the Suharto periodwas in the close connection between
political and economic power characteristic of the Suharto regime, and which
continues to feature in Indonesian power relations. Hashim was by far the larger
business player of the two brothers; his Tirtamas Group was estimated as being worth
US$7 billion toward the end of the Suhato years, and had interests including six banks,
a cement factory, a petrochemical complex, a coal-fired power station, and oil palm.
Many of Hashim’s most important business investments were joint ventures with his
sister-in-law, Titiek. As he told Forbes in a 2010 interview,I had connections. Ive
never hidden the fact. I made use of those connections. Why wouldn’t I? But I never
misused the connections. I never had a monopoly.”
He wasand still iswidely
admired as a skilled entrepreneur, yet he was also able to leverage his connections
effectively in the New Order period, for instance, facilitating the opening of the power
sector to foreign investors and the privatization of state-owned telephone companies,
making him “one of the most sought-after local partners for multinationals who want a
presence in Indonesia.”
At the same time, the political partnership with his brother
was already established, with Hashim playing the role of financier for his brother’s
political ambitions and machinery. As Hashim explained to one reporter in 1993, if
Prabowo needs funds, … as a loyal and dutiful brother, I’ll provide them. He has a lot
of soldiers to take care of.”
Such interdependence of private capital and politico-
Melorot, accessed March 2, 2015.
See:Prabowo Paling Kaya: Hartanya meningkat sekitar 160 kali lipat dalam enam tahun,” Koran Tempo,
May 19, 2009; andHampir 11 Tahun, Harta Kekayaan Prabowo Naik 100 Kali Lipat Lebih,” Kompas, July
2, 2014. US dollar figures based on 1 July 1, 2014 exchange rate.
One source on Prabowo’s business interests is A. Pambudi, Kalau Prabowo Jadi Presiden (Narasi:
Yogyakarta, 2009), 93100.
See:Tirtamas Group: Active to Expand Its Business Base,” Indonesian Commercial Newsletter, September
22, 1997; and “Indonesia’s Hashim: Picking up the Pieces,” Businessweek, March 29, 1998, http://www., accessed
March 2, 2015.
Simon Montlake, “Homecoming,” Forbes, January 15, 2010,
companies-djojohadikusumo-suharto-kazakh-exile-returns.html, accessed March 2, 2015.
How to Build an Empire in Jakarta,” Businessweek, October 20, 1996,
stories/1996-10-20/how-to-build-an-empire-in-jakarta-intl-edition, accessed March 2, 2015.
Raphael Pura, “Hashim Emerges in Corporate IndonesiaFamily and Political Connections Bolster
Tough Expansionary Style,Asian Wall Street Journal, February 2, 1993.
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Edward Aspinall
military power was not incidental to New Order power structures, but was one of their
defining features.
As with many Indonesian capitalists, Hashim’s economic fortunes suffered badly
during the Asian financial crisis of 199798. Among many other problems, Bank Niaga,
which he had purchased on the eve of the crisis, was dragged down by debts, and by
early 1999 Tirtamas was reported as having US$1.2 billion in debts, which Hashim was
dragging his feet in repaying.
IBRA (The Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency)
took over a large part of the debts of the group, and for years Hashim faced numerous
court cases and sustained accusations of corruption and other improprieties.
much of this time, Hashim stayed away from Indonesiaand when he returned briefly
in 2002, he was jailed over an accusation that one of his banks had exceeded its legal
lending limits.
A critical part of Prabowo’s rise to political prominence thus lies in its timing. Like
most other major Indonesian capitalists who were almost destroyed by the 199798
financial crisis, within less than a decade Hashim and his brother had saved their
business fortunes, showing significant skill at minimizing legal repercussions and in
using the state financing available through IBRA and similar agencies. Hashim
resolved his conflicts with government creditors in 2005. Moreover, he gained a
windfall profit from his stake in an oilfield in Kazakhstan that was purchased in 1997
for US$77 million and sold for US$1.6 billion in 2006.
The revival of Prabowos
financial fortunes occurred around the same time, and presumably was closely linked.
For example, in 2004 he managed to secure a US$180 million loan from Bank Mandiri
to buy Kertas Nusantara, a pulp producer that used to be owned by Bob Hasan, the
notorious Suharto-era crony.
By the mid-2000s, both brothers had largely cleared
their debts and resolved their legal problems, and were strongly investing in the new
boom areas of the Indonesian economy, notably coal, oil palm, and other rent-rich
areas that were by now the major targets of politically connected businesses. A crucial
condition for Prabowo’s political rise was thus the restructuring and revival of
oligarchic power in the wake of the financial crisis. Despite all the debt-restructuring
programs, asset seizures, prosecutions, and cancellations of licenses that followed the
crisis, the interests that had underpinned the Soeharto order, including many of the
figures that had been dominant then in business and politics, managed to survive and
to reorganize their economic power.”
The timing of Prabowo’s reinsertion into
political life thus benefited from two specific factorshis brother’s Kazakhstan
windfall, but also the broader, post-crisis reconsolidation of the oligarchy.
Dan Murphy, “Creditors at Bay,” Far Eastern Economic Review, October 28, 1999: 7071.
See, for example: “Hashim Denies Semen Cibinong Missing Millions,” Jakarta Post, August 25, 1999; and
Hashim Fires Back at IBRA over Bankruptcy Action,Jakarta Post, January 6, 2000.
Sadanand Dhume, “Detention Is Latest Sign of Legal Push by Jakarta,” Asian Wall Street Journal, March
15, 2002.
Montlak, “Homecoming,” Forbes.
Richard Robison and Vedi R. Hadiz, Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of
Markets (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 187. For a general count of the survival of oligarchy, see ibid.,
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 13
Prabowo’s Challenge and Appeal
Prabowo’s political program had three core components: economic nationalism,
condemnation of the corruption of Indonesia’s ruling elite, and an authoritarian
subtext. None of these themes was unique in terms of content: plenty of other
politicians have taken similar stands, although rarely with such consistency or
vehemence, in the post-Suharto period. One thing that did make Prabowo remarkable,
however, was the way in which he delivered these themes. Prabowo developed a
grand demagogic style that marked him as different from other mainstream politicians.
Favoring large public campaign rallies, he spoke in a booming voice, addressed his
audience as saudara (brothers), and peppered his speeches with rhetorical questions
and flourishes. He often reached an almost hysterical pitch, especially when asking his
audience whether they wished to see Indonesia’s subjugation by foreign powers, the
corruption of its elite, or various other maladies continue; or when he was condemning
(unnamed) traitors to the nationpeople who wanted to sell the country out to
foreigners, abscond with the people’s money, steal the election, or spread calumny and
slander against him personally. As many commentators have noted, the oratorical and
visual styling of these speeches were obviously modeled on Sukarno at the height of
his powers: Prabowo dressed like Sukarno, wearing a rather archaic white safari suit
and a black peci (cap); he spoke as Sukarno did; and he even used vintage microphones
like those from the mid-twentieth century.
Prabowo’s open-air campaign speeches
typically also involved a strong element of pageantry and ceremony, including
employing military-style marching bands and arriving dramatically via helicopter; and
with much saluting, standing at attention, and other hyper-masculine displays, all
amounting to a highly theatrical attempt to invoke the grandeur and passion of
Indonesia’s nationalist political tradition.
Another distinctive feature was the personalistic nature of Prabowo’s approach. On
the campaign trail, Prabowo’s speeches were self-referential to a degree that is unusual
among Indonesian politicians. He often spoke in the third person, relating his abstract
points to anecdotes drawn from his personal biography, and recalling experiences or
lessons from his early life or military career. Most important of all, Prabowo
consistently prescribed the same solution for the manifold ills he diagnosed in
contemporary Indonesia: firm leadership” (kepemimpinan yang tegas)leadership, of
course, that only he could provide. He reinforced the messaging through his many
social media communications. One Facebook post in December 2013, for example,
featured a picture of him at his farm looking over some goats with the following
I believe that if a thousand goats are led by a tiger they will all end up roaring.
But if a thousand tigers are led by a goat they will all end up as goats. History
John Roosa, “Sukarno’s Two Bodies,” New Mandala, May 26, 2014,
newmandala/2014/05/26/sukarnos-two-bodies/, accessed March 2, 2105.
Indeed, one of the features of the campaign was its masculinist cast, evident not only in Prabowo’s own
performances, but also in the nature of the support he attracted. This was perhaps most famously
exemplified by the Indonesian rock singer Ahmad Dani, who produced a music video with an element of
neo-Nazi styling in favor of Prabowo, and who publicly stated that “manly men” (lelaki jantan) would vote
for Prabowo and “the masculinity of those who don’t vote for him has to be questioned.” See Ahmad
Dhani: Lelaki Jantan Pilih Prabowo-Hatta,” Vivanews, May 21, 2014,
read/506187-ahmad-dhani--lelaki-jantan-pilih-prabowo-hatta, accessed March 2, 2105.
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Edward Aspinall
teaches us: It is the quality of its leadership that determines the rise or fall of any
The metaphor was made even more explicit in the many billboards erected in 2014 that
depicted Prabowo alongside the slogan: Prabowo, Macan Asia (Prabowo, Asian Tiger).
Economic Nationalism
The most prominent component of Prabowo’s political program, from the time he
returned to Indonesia from exile through his presidential campaign in 2014, was
economic nationalism. A passage in Kembalikan Indonesia! [Restore Indonesia!], a book
he published while beginning his attempted political revival in 2004, sums up the over-
arching theme:
The domination of foreign powers over the national economic interest has made
the Indonesian Nation lose its independence. A nation that surrenders its
sovereignty to other nations is a nation that is colonized, insulted, discriminated
against. The People of Indonesia are no longer the owners of the important
companies of Indonesia. Our people are considered as not having the right to be
company leaders. The Indonesian Government has lost control over
management. We must be satisfied with being kacung [slaves].
Elsewhere in the book, Prabowo describes Indonesians as being like starving
chickens in a rice barn.”
He promoted such themes consistently over the subsequent
decade; indeed, he frequently commented that Indonesia had become a nation of
kacung in his 2014 stump speeches. However, the focus changed somewhat over time.
Early on, much of his ire concentrated on the IMF programs pursued in Indonesia after
the 199798 crisiswhich he described as being not an “economic crisis but an
“economic war” waged against Indonesia
and on the burdens of Indonesia’s foreign
debt. Thus, in Kembalikan Indonesia!, Prabowo devotes much space to condemning the
so-called Washington consensus” (i.e., the neoliberal policies favored by the World
Bank, IMF, etc.), including trade and financial deregulation. He blamed this consensus
for the crisis, which he says was producing in Indonesia a social structure similar to
that of the middle ages, eliminating “the groups which used to fill the social space
between the small caste of the super-rich and the large mass who are poor or very
By the time of the 2014 election, the Gerindra partys manifesto stated that the
party “rejects forms of liberalization of trade while advancing policies of protection for
domestic trade commodities.” Prabowo and his party also called for revision of laws
such as those on foreign investment and minerals, with a view to placing greater
restrictions on foreign capital.
926179/, accessed December 1, 2014.
Prabowo Subianto, Kembalikan Indonesia! Haluan Baru Keluara dari Kemelut Bangsa (Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar
Harapan, 2004), 3031.
Ibid., 12.
Idham Khalid, “Ini Pidato Prabowo di Depan Agum Gumelar Cs,”, April 22, 2014,
gumelar-cs, accessed March 3, 2015.
Prabowo, Kembalikan Indonesia!, 132.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 15
In fact, Prabowo’s economic critique was wide-ranging, and included frequent
condemnation of the neoliberal,” liberal,or capitalist” features of the Indonesian
economy, and the impoverishment of the masses. He accompanied such denunciations
with calls to revive Indonesia’s populist economic traditions, such as the notion of the
people’s economy (ekonomi kerakyatan) or the emphasis on cooperatives once proposed
by vice-president Muhammad Hatta. He certainly did not present any systematic
critique of capitalism, but he did state he wanted to restore the central planning that
had occurred under the New Order. (Gerindra’s manifesto calls for the return of that
regime’s national development planning outlines every fifth year, the GBHN [Garis
Besar Haluan Negara, Broad Outlines of State Policy]). Prabowo and his party also
opposed the privatization and sale of state enterprises in general, and of strategic
assets (such as the telecommunications firm Indosat) in particular.
Prabowo gave special attention to two sectors: agricultural production and natural
resources. On the former, Prabowo strongly urged national self reliance in food
production, pointing to the absurdity that an agrarian nation that for hundreds of
years has possessed millions of hectares of wet-rice fields must now import rice, sugar,
onions, chili, cassava, meat, and milk.
In the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo
promised to open four million hectares of new farming land for rice, bioethanol crops,
and other crops, with the goal of employing twenty-four million people. He proposed
various other investments in fertilizer production and the like, and also made a general
promise to “guarantee the prices of foodstuffs.”
Overall, despite his militant style, the
solutions advanced were far from radical; the Gerindra Manifesto, for example, made
no mention of land reform, but instead proposed the development of agriculture with
the strategy of an agribusiness approach.”
The second focus, natural resourcesminerals, oil, and natural gasbecame
increasingly central to Prabowo’s discourse as Indonesia entered its long decade of
economic recovery and growth that coincided with the international commodity boom
between about 2000 and 2009. The basic line here was simple, and one that has been a
staple of Indonesian nationalism since the Dutch period: Indonesia was a country
blessed by great natural riches that were being sucked out by foreigners. This was the
staple of his appearances in the televised presidential debates in 2014, for example.
Prabowo’s Facebook page also featured maps of Indonesia that located major foreign
investments in mining and fossil fuels, and he proposed renegotiating contracts with
foreign companies and buyers that disadvantaged the country. Again, however, it
would be a mistake to exaggerate the policy cohesiveness or sophistication of his
economic nationalism. Rather, its point was to position Prabowo as a leader who
embodied the national interest and cared for the poor. In his stump speeches he
sometimes did this with fiery oratory, condemning the pernicious foreigners who were
seeking to exploit and cripple Indonesia; in televised presidential debates, he tried
Prabowo, Surat untuk Sahabat, 173.
Prabowo Subianto, “Visi, Misi dan Program Bakal Pasangan Calon Presiden dan Wakil Presiden,”
Jakarta, May 20, 2014, 5 (pamphlet).
Manifesto Perjuangan Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya, 2013, 25, a fifty-page pamphlet available at, accessed March 23, 2015.
See, for example, Third Debate (June 22, 2014),,
accessed March 23, 2015.
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Edward Aspinall
more gentle language, saying he wished the little people of Indonesia to be able to
Prabowo’s economic nationalism, of course, draws on widely shared public anger
about the IMF restructuring program introduced in the wake of the late-1990s financial
crisis (which was one reason why Gerindra attracted several former left-wing student
activists as members). But the appeal of economic nationalism can also be located in
the nature of Indonesia’s political economy. Economic nationalism has had consistent
ideological appeal and utility in Indonesia for those officials and businesspeople whose
wealth derives from capturing rents generated in protected sectors of the economy,
especially natural resources.
Accordingly, protectionist and interventionist policies
tend to strengthen during periods of high commodity production and export, while
liberal and market-oriented policies are more robust in times of crisis; there is even an
aphorism to describe this relationship, known as Sadli’s law, after the liberal technocrat
Mohammad Sadli: “bad times may produce good economic policies, and good times
frequently the reverse.”
It is little wonder, therefore, that economic nationalism should have been on the
rise over the last decade, coinciding with Indonesia’s post-Asian-crisis recovery and a
protracted boom in commodity prices and exports. Between 2004 and 2012, for
example, Indonesian coal production almost quadrupled, rising from 128 million to
466 million tons, while in the same period land under oil palm cultivation more than
doubled, from 4.4 million to over 10 million hectares.
Countless new fortunes have
been made, or old ones saved and expanded, by elites able to leverage their political
connections to gain favored access to licenses for mines, plantations, and other
components of Indonesia’s contemporary “extractive regime.”
One reflection of this
new scramble for wealth is a rise in “resource nationalism,” expressed in legislative
changes such as a revamped mining law that mandated new divestment requirements
for foreign firms in that sector.
Another closely linked phenomenon is reflexive
hostility to neoliberalism expressed throughout the political elite.
economic nationalism is merely a somewhat extreme example of a much wider
Moreover, Prabowo’s economic nationalism should also be viewed not only, or
even primarily, as an exercise in demagoguery, but as an expression of his class
position and interests. As noted above, the focus of Prabowo and his brother’s
investments shifted in the post-Suharto era away from sectors such as cement
Second presidential debate (June 15, 2014), ([full]
Debat Kedua Capres JokowiProbowo 15 Juni 2014), at 1:26:20, accessed March 2, 2015.
Richard Robison, Indonesia: The Rise of Capital (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986).
Hal Hill and Thee Kian Wie, “Moh. Sadli (19222008)Economist, Minister, and Public Intellectual,”
Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 44, no. 1 (2008): 154.
Figures derived from BPS’s website,
The term is borrowed from Paul K. Gellert,Extractive Regimes: Toward a Better Understanding of
Indonesian Development,” Rural Sociology 75, no. 1 (2010): 2857.
Eve Warburton, “In Whose Interest? Debating Resource Nationalism in Indonesia,” Kyoto Review of
Southeast Asia, Issue 15 (March 2014),
nationalism-in-indonesia/, accessed March 3, 2015.
Indeed, even President Yudhoyono condemned neoliberalism from time to time; see, for example,
“Tidak Ada Tempat untuk Kapitalisme,Kompas, July 13, 2007.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 17
production and banking, and toward mining, oil palm, and the like. Moreover, though
both have significant experience in collaborating with foreign investors,
and in
investing overseas, they have each also benefited in the past from leveraging both
formal and informal state protection at the expense of foreign competitors. For
example, during the late New Order, when he was expanding his business empire,
Hashim was willing to make use of a little-known restriction on foreign investment to
take over forcibly a Japanese-controlled cement firm, Semen Nusantara.
A more
celebrated recent case occurred when a London-based company, Churchill, found
much larger than expected reserves of coking coal in East Kutai, in Kalimantan, only to
havein a process that its director described as “asset stripping” and
“manipulation”its licenses declared forgeries by the local district head, who returned
the site to its previous concessionary, Prabowos Nusantara Group.
The district head,
Isran Noor, became a major supporter of Prabowo, at one point stating that he
supported Prabowo’s presidential campaign 1,000 percent.”
Likewise, even
Gerindra’s emphasis on agricultural production and agribusiness accords with the
economic interests of Prabowo and his brother, with both of them expanding their
interests in this sector over the last decade. For example, Hashim’s company
Comexindo is one investor in the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate, an over-
one-million hectare project planned in Papua province.
The economic themes
Prabowo espoused during his campaign closely tracked his family interests.
An “anti-politics” posture “is a classic populist technique, by which a leader poses
as the embodiment of national unity and the public interest against the dispiriting
divisiveness of partisan or particular interests.”
More specifically, populism is often
associated with the condemnation of the corruption and self-interest of the political
This collaboration, of course, has continued into the current period. Hashim in particular continues to
have major international investments and to actively engage in joint ventures with foreign capital when
necessary. For example, he teamed up with London Nat Rothschild in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest
control of coal giant Bumi Plc from fellow Indonesian oligarch Aburizal Bakrie; see Ben Bland, “Rothschild
Ally Relishes Bumi Spat, Financial Times, February 19, 2013,
773f-11e2-9ebc-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3R0YWqYMh, accessed February 7, 2015.
Mark Clifford, “IndonesiaCementing a Deal,” Far Eastern Economic Review, July 15, 1993: 82.
See: Tom Allard, “Rich Seam of Conflict over Coal Discovery,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 4, 2011,
1l5so.html#ixzz3ItzmDcBl, accessed March 3, 2015; and Y. Tomi Aryanto and Firman Hidayat, “Mine
Wars,” Tempo, March 4, 2012: 5961.
Isran Noor Dampingi Prabowo di 2014?” Republika Online, October 13, 2013, http://www.republika., accessed
March 3, 2015.
Longgena Ginting and Oliver Pye, Resisting Agribusiness Development: The Merauke Integrated Food and
Energy Estate in West Papua, Indonesia (paper presented at the International Conference on Global Land
Grabbing, Institute of Development StudiesUniversity of Sussex, April 68, 2011. Separately, Hashim’s
business interests have been reported as including concessions covering over three million hectares,
including plantations, forest concessions, coal mines, and gas fields. See Pratama Guitarra, “Pasang surut
bisnis putra sang Begawan,” Kontan, February 23, 2014,
bisnis-putra-sang-begawan, accessed February 7, 2015.
Kenneth M. Roberts,Neoliberalism and the Transformation of Populism in Latin America: The
Peruvian Case,” World Politics 48 (October 1995): 98.
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Edward Aspinall
class. Along with economic nationalism, a posture of this sort was the central theme of
Prabowo’s campaign approach. From the start of his political revival in 2004, Prabowo
was already speaking of the betrayal of the elite,” condemning party corruption, and
promising clean government. His rhetoric escalated as he approached the 2014
We must remember, the Indonesian nation is on the threshold of becoming a joke
republic. A pseudo-democracy Republic. A Republic that is controlled by a mafia,
by thieves. A Republic that is controlled by an oligarchy that only thinks about
how to keep looting the country’s riches without thinking of the consequences for
the future of the majority.
The tone reached fever pitch on the campaign trail in 2014, when Prabowo
routinely condemned Indonesia’s entire political class in blanket terms, depicting it as
irredeemably corrupt and self-serving. As he told a crowd of workers at a rally on May
Day 2014: “The Indonesian elite has lied for too long lied to the people, lied to the
nation, lied to itself!
Later in the same speech, he added, “All are corrupted! All are
bribed! All our leaders are willing to be bought and willing to be bribed!” Depicting
himself as the anti-political politician, he explained:
We cannot hope for too much from our leaders. They are clever talkers, so clever,
so clever that they end up as clever liars! I went into politics because I was forced!
I was forced, brothers and sisters! Politics God help us! Of fifteen people I
meet in politics, fourteen of them are total liars …
We can already see here a keyand classically populistelement of Prabowo’s
technique: a strong element of “Othering,” in which an unspecified enemy of the
People is constructed, with the Leader presented as its nemesis. Indeed, in this practice
of Othering, Prabowo would often freely associate, mixing nationalist and anti-
corruption themes to create a picture of a hostile cabal of foreigners, their stooges, and
corruptors who not only impoverished the people but also sought to destroy the nation
and were hostile to him personally. Another stump speech, this one delivered with
great fervor in Medan in June 2014, is worth quoting at length because it reveals the
technique in some detail:
All you who want Indonesia to remain poor, all of you who steal the people’s
moneyI will not waver in the face of you! If you all say that the Indonesian
nation can be bought, I say it cannot be bought! If you all want to commit
fraud, brothers, I say “go ahead,” and watchwatch!what will be done by the
Indonesian people! … Beware all you foreign stooges! All you who can only
slander, can only insult people, but have never defended the people, never gave
thought to the people, never gave thought to the poor, who only at election time
pretend to care for the people Do you think that the Indonesian nation is one
that can be lied to continually? Brothers, our struggle is right! Our struggle is
right! We struggle for justice, we struggle for an Indonesia which is respected, we
struggle for an Indonesia which can stand on its own feet! we do not waver in
Prabowo Subianto, Surat untuk Sahabat (Jakarta Selatan: TransMedia, 2013), 150.
The speech can be found at (“Prabowo Subianto:
Orasi Politik Prabowo Subianto pada Hari Buruh 1 Mei 2014”), accessed March 3, 2015.
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Oligarchic Populism and Economic Nationalism 19
the face of your trickery Beware all you who are used to stealing the
Indonesian people’s moneyI don’t need to name them one by one, but when
the time comes, if necessary, I will name them, brothers beware all of you who
have a vision of an Indonesia broken apart, of a poor Indonesia, we say: no! This
time, NO! Indonesia wants to rise up, brothers the Indonesian people want
justice, the Indonesian people want a leader who is clean, who doesn’t pretend to
be of the people, yet steals the people’s money!
Obviously, the main purpose of such performances was to promote Prabowo’s
leadership as the solution to such ills. Accordingly, the policy proscriptions he and
Gerindra offered to remedy corruption were hardly comprehensive (although Prabowo
did promise to greatly increase funding for the Corruption Eradication Commission).
Even so, Prabowo’s condemnation of the corruption and hypocrisy of the political elite
is a resonant message in contemporary Indonesia. As is well known, “money politics
has become an important foundation of the post-Suharto political order. Reports on
official corruption saturate the media, and polling data repeatedly show that ordinary
Indonesians view corruption as a serious problem. Campaigning to eliminate
corruption, therefore, was hardly novel in post-Suharto politics. What distinguished
Prabowo from mainstream politicians was simply his framing of the issue: rather than
offering technical and legal remedies, like other elite politicians, he adopted a posture
of blanket condemnation of the entire elite and presented himself, and strong
leadership, as its antithesis. Unusual in the Indonesian context, such a posture is, of
course, par for the course for populists and authoritarian politicians in many
As I and others have argued elsewhere, a major signal of Prabowo’s authoritarian
intention was his consistent call for Indonesia to return to the “original text” or the
“original version” of the 1945 constitution.
Gerindra made this call from the time it
was founded in 2008, and Prabowo, along with other leading party members, such as
his brother, frequently reiterated this goal, making clear that they meant to return
Indonesia to the literal text of the 1945 constitution, not just to its “spirit,” as apologists
sometimes suggested.
Moreover, the Gerindra Manifesto located this proposition in a
wider critique of contemporary democracy, stating that “The political system that has
been heading in the direction of liberal democracy since the reformasi era needs to be
corrected.” Returning to the original text of the 1945 constitution would have meant
The speech can be seen in full at (“Orasi Bapak
Prabowo Subianto di Medan), accessed March 3, 2015. The translation is a modified version taken from
Liam Gammon, “Prabowo’s Dog-whistling,” New Mandala, June 12, 2014,
newmandala/2014/06/12/prabowos-dog-whistling/, accessed March 3, 2015.
Including military coup-makers; see Eric A. Nordlinger, Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and
Governments (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1977), 87.
Edward Aspinall, “Indonesia on the Knife’s Edge,” Inside Story, June 17, 2014,
/indonesia-on-the-knifes-edge/, accessed March 3, 2015.
See, for example, Indah Mutiara Kami, “Hashim Akui Prabowo Beda Pendapat dengan SBY Soal
Kembali ke UUD 1945,”, May 9, 2014,
2578761/1562/hashim-akui-prabowo-beda-pendapat-dengan-sby-soal-kembali-ke-uud-1945, accessed
March 3, 2015.
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Edward Aspinall
doing away with constitutional revisions passed between 1999 and 2002, which
mandated, among many other things, presidential term limits, direct presidential
elections, and elections of legislators. The original 1945 constitution imagined an
executive-focused system of government, lacking meaningful democratic constraints
on presidential power, and accordingly had been well-suited to Suharto’s autocratic
It should be stressed that in their election campaigning, Prabowo and Gerindra did
not highlight or greatly elaborate upon such anti-democratic aspects of their program.
Nor did they mount a full-scale overt assault on the concept of democracy, or directly
call for removal of its core features, such as free elections. We also did not see much
obsessiveness with some of the past shibboleths of Indonesian conservatism, such as
communism or threats to NKRI (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, Unitary State of
the Republic of Indonesia). Even references to the original spirit of the 1945
constitution often expressed economicand, of course, historicalrather than
authoritarian themes. Gerindra politicians frequently cited article 33, which maintains
that the Indonesian economy should be structured on the “family principle” and that
Indonesia’s “land, waters, and natural resources” should be controlled by the state.
Indeed, throughout the 2014 campaign, when reporters or others questioned his
democratic credentials or his commitment to human rights, Prabowo would insist
sometimes angrilythat he was a “democrat.” He frequently stated in this context that
he had had the capacity in 1998 to mount a coup against Habibie, and the fact that he
had not done so was proof of his democratic credentials. But most of his expressed
support for demo