© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Indonesia's next president has a complicated history with the U.S.

SEOUL, South Korea — Prabowo Subianto's path to Indonesia's presidency now appears clear. After winning his country's vote in February, he has fended off legal challenges to his election, with the top court rejecting appeals for a re-vote and allegations of fraud. President Biden and other foreign heads of state have sent their congratulations on his election.

But in a year of big elections worldwide, big questions remain about the aftermath of the vote in the world's third-largest democracy: Has Prabowo turned over a new leaf, or will he drag Indonesia back toward its authoritarian past? And what will relations be like between Prabowo and the United States, the country that first trained and backed him, then later imposed sanctions on him for alleged human rights abuses?

On April 22, Indonesia's Constitutional Court dismissed a petition by the two losing candidates in the election, in which they alleged widespread vote-buying and government interference. But to many observers, Prabowo's ascent to the presidency remains problematic.

"I think we can easily see, actually, that this national election was definitely the least free and the least fair of any election we've had in the post-Suharto period," argues Edward Aspinall, an expert on Indonesian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The fall of former President Suharto in 1998, after three decades of authoritarian rule, led to a period of democratic reforms, during which elections have generally been seen as fair.

However, outgoing President Joko Widodo cleared away restraints on presidential power. Critics allege that Widodo muzzled the nation's anti-corruption watchdog in 2019 by stripping it of its independence and making it a government body, and maneuvered his 37-year-old son into position as Prabowo's vice president. Experts suggest Prabowo may have no need to roll back democratic reforms further.

Bivitri Susanti, a lecturer at the Indonesia Jentera School of Law, says that given the Biden administration's focus on global democracy, the U.S. should speak out against "dynastic politics."

"If the U.S. really wants to build an alliance on democracy and rejecting authoritarianism," she says, "I believe this is a big step towards authoritarianism, and so it has to be criticized publicly."

It is far from clear what kind of president Prabowo will turn out to be, and even critics admit that he has a chance to show that he's changed from his military days, when he is alleged to have committed grave abuses against civilians.

On the campaign trail, Prabowo declared that "power and sovereignty are in the hands of the Indonesian people" and that the country's future would be decided by "one person, one vote."

Indonesia's President-elect Prabowo Subianto (left) speaks to reporters with Vice President-elect Gibran Rakabuming Raka (second left) as they arrive at the plenary session of the General Elections Commission after his main rivals' challenges to his election victory were rejected in Jakarta, April 24.
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Indonesia's President-elect Prabowo Subianto (left) speaks to reporters with Vice President-elect Gibran Rakabuming Raka (second left) as they arrive at the plenary session of the General Elections Commission after his main rivals' challenges to his election victory were rejected in Jakarta, April 24.

But in the past, Aspinall notes, Prabowo has disparaged elections as "too expensive and too tiring," and argued that open opposition to the government "was not compatible with Indonesia's national culture, which emphasized harmony."

Similarly, observers are looking for signs of whether Prabowo's early attachment to the U.S. — or his later alienation from it — will affect his dealings with Washington.

Prabowo graduated from high school at the American School in London, where his family lived in exile. He received special forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., (renamed Ft. Liberty in 2022) and officer training at what was then Fort Benning, Ga., now Ft. Moore, in the 1980s.

But Prabowo was discharged in 1998 as head of Kopassus, Indonesia's special forces command, for his role in alleged human rights abuses — including killing of civilians during Indonesia's 1975 invasion and occupation until 1999 of East Timor, and the disappearance of student activists during protests against Suharto in 1998.

Prabowo was never prosecuted for his actions, as part of what Aspinall calls a "Faustian bargain" between the incoming civilian government and Suharto's outgoing generals that gave the generals immunity in exchange for relinquishing their grip on politics.

Prabowo denied the allegations against him. But "there was abundant evidence that Kopassus and others were essentially functioning as a criminal enterprise. Death squads, so to speak," says Tim Rieser, a former foreign policy aide to former Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Rieser helped craft the Leahy Law, which bars the U.S. government from assisting foreign military forces implicated in gross human rights violations. And Leahy himself argued, Rieser says, that "if there ever was a case for the Leahy law to be applied," Indonesia was it.

As a result of the law, the U.S. cut ties with Kopassus in 1999 and banned Prabowo from entering the U.S. from 2000 until he became defense minister in 2020.

(The U.S. has recently considered whether to apply the Leahy Law to Israel's military for human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, but has so far not imposed any sanctions.)

Rieser describes Prabowo as presenting the U.S. with a dilemma between its geopolitical interests and the values it proclaims.

"We need partners and Indonesia is a country that the United States wants to be a partner of," he says. "On the other hand, I think that we make a mistake — and we've made this mistake too often — when we don't stand up for the basic values and principles that people look to us for."

Rieser notes that part of the problem is competing priorities between branches of government, such as the Pentagon and the State Department.

Congress banned U.S. training of Indonesian armed forces from 1992 to 1995, but the Pentagon continued its training under its own separately funded program, in what former Rep. Nancy Pelosi called a clear "circumvention of Congress."

Another is shifting historical priorities. The U.S. backed Suharto during the Cold War to fight communism. It called on him to step down after the Cold War was over, when the Clinton administration was trying to promote democracy, and riots erupted in Indonesia against authoritarianism, corruption and economic hardship in 1998.

Many Indonesians are too young to remember this history.

But the U.S. government, argues Rieser, will hopefully learn from its Cold War-era experiences, and, he says, "when someone like this [Prabowo] comes to power, we're still going to stand up for now what we believe in" and publicly support Indonesians fighting for democracy.

For now, though, world leaders including President Biden have only sent the president-elect their congratulations.

Yosef Riadi contributed to this report in Jakarta.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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.