From insults to selfies: Prabowo is set to join Jokowi’s cabinet

Jokowi meets Prabowo SubiantoPhoto: Rahmat, public relation staff in Secretariat of Cabinet, Republic of Indonesia.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has reportedly asked his former political opponent Prabowo Subianto to join his cabinet. What is behind the decision to reach across the aisle? And what does it mean for Jokowi’s second term in office?


The 2019 Indonesian presidential election was the largest, single-day expression of democracy anywhere on earth. More than 193 million voters turned out to select their presidential candidate in what was the climax of a long and dirty election campaign.

Incumbent Joko Widodo emerged victorious with 55.5% of the vote in an election marred by personal insults, cyber trolls, misinformation and religious zealotry. Refusing to accept defeat, Widodo’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto, accused the president of electoral fraud, triggering some of the worst political violence witnessed in decades. Hundreds were injured as Prabowo’s supporters clashed with police at least six people were killed.

It was therefore unexpected when, earlier this week, Prabowo revealed that Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is affectionately known, had requested his assistance and named him in his new cabinet. Jokowi, who is due to announce his new cabinet later today, is expected to name his long-time political rival to the defence ministerial post.

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer

The appointment comes after a period of softening relations between the two. Last week, the pair took selfies together at the presidential palace. Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Prabowo’s Gerindra Party have also been engaged in discussions in recent weeks.

Despite the selfies, the decision to bring Prabowo and his Gerindra party was clearly political for Jokowi. Firstly, since the election, Prabowo has continued to align himself closely with elements of Islamic society. He recently appointed the former leader of Muhammadiyah’s youth wing, Dahnil Simanjuntak, as his personal spokesman.

From insults to selfies.
Photo: Instagram

Jokowi’s political capital and his party’s future electability depends, at least in part, on his ability to maintain an alliance with Islamic civil society. He needs the support of groups like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah to effectively govern. Subianto’s continued alignment and courting of Islamic society represented a direct threat to PDI-P’s ability to govern and future in office.

Additionally, Prabowo Subianto owns swathes of land in East Kalimantan, Jokowi’s proposed site for the new capital. The former general and his family allegedly own some 220,000 hectares. If Jokowi’s plan to move the nation’s administrative capital to East Kalimantan is to bear fruit, he will likely need the support of Prabowo. Bringing him into the government can be seen as an attempt to put aside political rivalries in an effort to implement and realise government policy. The Gerindra deputy chairman, Edhy Prabowo, is also tipped for a job as agricultural minister.

Prabowo has a unique opportunity

Prabowo will emerge from the political machinations as the head of a  department with a 127.4 trillion rupiah (US$8.8 billion) budget, the largest of any government ministry. Not only will this influence give him an opportunity to implement some of Gerindra’s closest held policy initiatives, it also gives him a platform through which he can connect with voters. Both offer a strong foundation for a third bid for the presidency in 2024.

Indonesian democracy is the real loser

Indonesian democracy has some dark days ahead. The constitution is also under assault from elements in PDI-P, including former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who wish to end direct presidential elections and restore an appointive presidency. The initiative, which would see the president appointed by a legislative majority, already has the support of NasDem party chief, Surya Paloh, Golkar’s Airlangga Hartaro and Gerindra’s Prabowo Subianto. Subianto’s appointment hands Megawati another ally in the cabinet.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
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If successful, the constitutional amendments would be a major blow to Indonesian democracy. It would essentially restore power to the aristocracy and political elite, offering ample room for corruption, nepotism and a strengthening of the oligarchy.

Even if the constitutional amendments do not come to pass, the appointment of Prabowo to Jokowi’s cabinet essentially robs Indonesian politics of an effective opposition. With Gerindra in Jokowi’s government, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) is the only remaining opposition party. With just 50 seats out of a possible 575, it is essentially a paper opposition.

Without a prominent opposition, there is no political mechanism for holding the government accountable, creating the conditions for ineffective governance. With a severely crippled Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), corruption and graft could soon set in.

The decision could backfire politically

Aside from the democratic implications of the appointment, it could end up backfiring as a political decision. Jokowi’s attempts to reach across the aisle to carry out his political agenda could scupper future policy priorities.  

On the campaign trail, Prabowo was a fervent nationalist who vowed to build a strong manufacturing base and promoted Indonesian food self-sufficiently. Foreign investors could harbour concerns over a senior cabinet minister exploiting nationalist sentiment. Without boosting foreign investment, Jokowi’s landmark infrastructure drive will suffer and his much-coveted 7% annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth will remain elusive.

A nemesis is defined as “an inescapable agent of someone or something’s downfall.” In opposition, Prabowo was Jokowi’s nemesis. After two hotly contested presidential races, the fate of each man seemed inescapably entwined to the other. One would have to fall for the other to rise.

Don’t let the selfies fool you. Prabowo’s entry to the governing coalition doesn’t alter Prabowo’s position. He is still Jokowi’s political nemesis. And he may still prove to be the architect of Jokowi’s downfall.