Indonesia's next leader faces challenges

Indonesia's next leader faces challenges

Prabowo Subianto's electoral victory is expected, especially since he named Gibran Rakabuming, President Joko Widodo's eldest son, as his running mate. The "Jokowi effect" is firmly driving an upward momentum of support.

However, realities from now on will make it hard for Prabowo to cement his own legacy and credentials as he has pledged to retain most of Joko's policies, including the Nusantara plan.

His electoral pledges remain economic and welfare-centric, which helps win over the electorate. For example, he has pledged to push biofuels for energy self-sufficiency, to build a hospital in every municipality, to open new land for agriculture and to create 19 million new jobs on top of 8% annual growth, among others.

Prabowo's top priority is his 460 trillion rupiah (1 trillion baht) free lunch and milk plan for schools and expecting mothers and increasing the nation's defence spending. This alone will add to additional burdens, which already include the price tag of a new capital, which is estimated to cost 466 trillion rupiah.

Concerns about fiscal discipline and risks are high, as observers are worried about financial debt and the likelihood that China will arrive on the scene and provide short-term support.

Prabowo's victory is sure to invite an internal outcry over his human rights records and procurements of defence assets under his purview. However, the nation's overall security and future interests remain a priority for voters.

Anti-China rhetoric has largely been muted during campaigning, and Prabowo is seen as the right choice for Beijing. China is Indonesia's biggest trade partner and its main source of foreign investment, especially in nickel smelters, which figure prominently in the country's push to industrialise.


Under Joko, Prabowo has also transformed into an appealing personality that can capture younger voters.

Yesterday, the incumbent president awarded Prabowo, his presumed successor and an ex-special forces commander, the rank of honorary four-star general, decades after being dismissed from the military amid allegations of rights abuses. The son-in-law of late strongman President Suharto, Prabowo was also banned from the United States for about two decades.

The bigger question is -- how the West and Washington will deal with Prabowo in shaping Indonesia's domestic economic and critical sector transformation that will remain vital for the West's containment of China.

For any increased overtures, the need to court Prabowo must not be at the expense of democratic ideals and human rights protection.

Being the world's third-largest democracy, Indonesia remains a de facto democratic bulwark of the West's global arch of freedom and democracy. The country serves as the connecting point in linking up with the larger domain that includes Japan, Australia and India, creating a Great Wall of Democracy in the Indo-Pacific.

For this, regional power and security domains in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific remain a critical cornerstone for Prabowo too. The ex-general is widely expected to bolster his country's armed forces while continuing to avoid being trapped by the rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

But in his quest to modernise Indonesia's hard power capacity, any sustained efforts, whether in financial resources or geostrategic capacities, will not be complete without the real support of Washington and its allies, especially the rest of the Quad members.

This will create a dilemma for Prabowo as he delicately tries to avoid upsetting Beijing and its importance in ensuring Indonesia's Global South role.

Asean Role

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will be reclaimed as Indonesia's primary tool under Prabowo. But that will require a toned-down approach vis a vis Beijing and some regional members that are pivoting away from their traditional reliance on Asean.

Prabowo's intent to beef up Jakarta's defensive, deterrent and offensive capacities will inevitably involve Washington's direct presence and support.

Beijing then will realise there are limits to economic interests and interdependence, especially when nationalistic sentiments are involved, such as in maritime concerns in the North Natuna Sea.

Existing allies and future allies will play an even more prominent role.

One such player is Vietnam, with Hanoi sharing similar policy dilemmas and traps, especially in the domains of security symbiosis with Beijing.

Prabowo will deepen and expand economic and security ties with Hanoi and seek steps to capitalise on an Exclusive Economic Zone agreement and other confidence-building measures.

Other measures include food and energy security, a new economic corridor of partnership based on smart cultivation and harnessing energy transition, and digital and green economy advancement. Both will leverage one another's future assets, especially in facing the new realities of declining Chinese economic prospects.

The future is increasingly tilted towards Prabowo. Realities on the ground, however, will prove to be tougher for him to overcome than mere pledges of words and strategic political mind games.

Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Foreign Affairs and Security Strategist at the University of Malaya in Malaysia.

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