Indonesia’s next leader is dancing away his unsavoury past

Meet Prabowo Subianto. He loves cats. He gets jiggy with it. He was the head of military special forces under a dictatorship. And he’s going to be the next president of Indonesia.  

Driving the news: Indonesia held one of the largest democratic elections in the world this week, with almost 205 million eligible voters. Early results show that Subianto, the defence minister and ex-general, is all but guaranteed to win the race and take office in November.  

  • The election, which was a massive undertaking, won’t be officially called for several weeks as ballots from ~800,000 polling stations across ~17,000 islands are counted.   

Why it’s happening: Subianto had an immensely successful political makeover. The army man ran in two past elections with a militaristic persona. For this election, he grandpa-fied his image, winning over Gen Z voters by blowing kisses, dancing, and going viral on TikTok. 

  • He also buddied up with his former rival, Joko Widodo. Subianto won the immensely popular current president’s endorsement and picked Widodo’s son as his VP. 

Yes, but: Critics warn that underneath this newly plushy exterior lies the heart of an authoritarian. Subianto was the son-in-law of Suharto — the iron-fisted dictator who ruled Indonesia for over three decades — and was a top general in the dictator’s brutal military.

  • After Suharto’s removal in 1998, Subianto was dishonourably discharged for his alleged involvement in the kidnapping and torturing of political activists. While he has denied any wrongdoing, the charge led to a years-long ban from entering the U.S. 

Why it matters: As the world’s third-largest democracy, in a region populated with authoritarian states, other democratic nations view Indonesia as an essential bastion of democracy and hope it will stay that way as democratic backsliding occurs across the globe.

Zoom out: Indonesia also plays a major role in the global green transition as the world’s top nickel supplier for electric vehicle batteries. Subianto could determine whether the country grows cozier with the U.S. or China, as both have poured money into the country.

What’s next: It’s still unclear exactly how Subianto will govern, as his campaign was heavy on ~vibes~ but light on concrete policy. He did promise to continue Widodo’s modernization efforts and his controversial plan to relocate the country's capital to a newly built city.—QH