“Prabowo’s Last Game: How Far will he Go?” by Made Supriatma

2019/48, 28 May 2019

Deadly riots erupted in downtown Jakarta after the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU) officially announced the results of the 2019 elections in the wee hours of May 21. The Commission declared that Prabowo Subianto-Sandiago Uno had lost the election to Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin by a 11 per cent margin.

As predicted, Prabowo’s camp rejected the results outright. They had anticipated this outcome and had called for a “people’s power” movement against alleged electoral fraud weeks before. Consequently, Prabowo’s supporters began arriving on May 21 and gathered in front of the Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu). Their numbers increased before sunset and they broke fast together. Even though the police wanted the protest to end by 9pm, the masses refused to leave and they began to clash. The chaos lasted all night and at dawn, an unknown mob set fire to a dozen cars near a police dormitory in Petamburan, Central Jakarta. On the morning of May 22, new riots broke out in Slipi, West Jakarta, and by noon, rioters had burnt two police buses. Two days of violent protests took eight lives, injured more than 700, and hundreds were detained. Also on May 22, riots reportedly took place in Pontianak (West Kalimantan), Medan (North Sumatra) and Sampang (Madura).

These protests raise questions. What is the real purpose of Prabowo? What game is he playing?

Not acknowledging defeat is not unusual for Prabowo. In the 2014 election, Prabowo had used the same argument to reject the election results. He brought his case to the Constitutional Court, but it was overruled. His supporters protested violently after the verdict but failed to incite bigger riots.

In 2019, Prabowo confronted different political realities. His coalition had shrunk to only 34.9 per cent of parliamentary seats, compared to 63.04 per cent in 2014. He only had the support of two Islamic parties, compared to four in 2014. But Prabowo had consolidated support from hardline Islamic organizations, especially the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), 212 Alumni Brotherhood (or PA212), and the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwa of Ulama (GNPF-U). These organizations were part of the coalition that toppled former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) through a “Defending Islam” demonstration on December 2, 2016.

The government stationed riot police to handle the violence, with support from the Marines and Air Force elite forces (Paskhas). The Army was nowhere in sight, which was understandable since Prabowo was an ex-Army general and many retired generals were among the protesters.

Prabowo’s move could be interpreted as a tactic to keep the support of hardline Islamic groups intact, which could be useful even if he did not become president. He eventually announced that he would contest the election results at the Constitutional Court. This flip from his previous position can be seen as an effort to save face.  

These riots had marred an otherwise rather successful presidential election. While the hardline Islamist groups can be relied on to mobilise mass support, it is a dangerous game to play because it is not always possible to determine how far they go.

Mr Made Supriatma is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.