JAKARTA – Leading in almost all popularity polls, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is hoping to make it third time lucky in effectively confirming he will run for the Indonesian presidency when incumbent Joko Widodo ends his pandemic-interrupted second and final term in 2024.

“I think if given the opportunity, anyone who still loves his country will definitely want it (but) there are many, many candidates so it will be up to the people to decide,” the former three-star general said in a June 13 podcast.

Prabowo had not spoken publicly about his political plans since Widodo surprisingly included him in his new Cabinet after the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) lost to him in the bitterly fought 2019 presidential campaign.

Popularity polls have Prabowo, 69, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 52, and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 52, as the consistently rated top three candidates early in an electoral cycle that will only begin to gather steam next year.

Showing little change over the past two years, the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) still leads the pack with 25.9%, followed by Gerindra, and the Golkar and National Awakening (PKB) parties squeezed in the 10.9 to 9.7% range.

Prabowo’s ambitions took a tumble in the wake of his former father-in-law, president Suharto’s 1998 downfall when he was drummed out of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) for alleged insubordination and the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists.

But after a period in self-imposed exile, he battled his way back, first losing a bid to become the Golkar party’s presidential candidate in 2004 and then forming his own party in 2008 with the financial help of his brother, businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo.

That allowed him to run as a vice-presidential candidate to PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri in an abortive 2009 bid to win back the presidency she lost to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono five years earlier.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) and PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Although he subsequently failed in two election races against Widodo in 2014 and 2019, Prabowo has never given up on his presidential dream, imbued in him by his father, the economist and nationalist leader Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, who died in 2001. 

Eschewing convention, Prabowo’s podcast interview was posted on YouTube by body-building social media personality Deddy Corbuzier, a former magician and member of the so-called “homeless media” who claims a 15 million-strong following.

The interview came days after the minister unveiled a US$123 billion defense modernization program, which is already under fire from critics for being too costly at a time when the economy is still staggering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prabowo has maintained a low profile for the past two years, with most media attention focused on his frequent trips abroad to put together a shopping list of new front-line jet fighters, frigates and submarines needed to secure Indonesia’s borders, including from now less-frequent Chinese incursions.

But in recent days, he has also been busy cozying up to Megawati, first by unveiling a statue of her father, founding president Sukarno, in the grounds of the Defense Ministry, and then in conferring on her an honorary professorship at the Defense University.

An alliance between Prabowo and PDI-P in 2024 has long been on the cards, with Megawati’s daughter, DPR Speaker Puan Maharani, 47, as his running mate. Although Prabowo’s reference is believed to lie elsewhere, the matriarch is unlikely to deviate from family, obsessed as she is with the Sukarno legacy.

PDI-P and Gerindra together control 202 seats in the 575-seat House of Representatives (DPR), but PDI-P’s 22.2% of DPR representation makes it the only party that meets the 20% threshold needed to nominate a president without forming a coalition.

The latest survey by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) puts Prabowo at 21.5%, followed by the PDI-P-affiliated Pranowo (12.6%), Baswedan (12%), former vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno (5.5%) and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil (4.4%).

Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo is running high in popularity polls. Image: Facebook

In a race among the top three contenders under today’s conditions, Prabowo scored 34.1%, with Pranowo on 25.5%, Baswedan on 23.5% and 16.9% of respondents undecided. Another Indonesian Political Parameters (IPP) poll has a much tighter race, showing Prabowo (24.8%) slightly in front of Pranowo (22.1%) and Baswedan (20.1%).

The surveys suggest Prabowo has an even distribution of supporters across populous Java, where elections are usually won and lost. Pranowo gets most of his support in Central and East Java and Baswedan’s strength remains rooted in conservative Muslim voters in western Java.

As the recognized opposition candidate, the Jakarta governor will be relying on the Islamic-leaning Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and United Development (PPP) parties, but he will still require a third party to meet the 20% threshold.

To broaden their base, PKS and PPP have dropped their previous adherence to Sharia Law and now describe their ideology as a strange mix of Pancasila, the stateideology, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic nationalism — and even “Islamic democracy.”

Maharani’s poll ratings are at only 0.3%, which may make it increasingly difficult for Megawati to justify her nomination, in the same way as she herself was reluctant to acknowledge Widodo was far more popular than she was in 2014 – and almost cost him the election as a result.

Pranowo’s popularity is causing tensions within PDI-P. The head of the party’s Central Jakarta chapter, Bambang Wunaryo, excluded him from a recent branch meeting with Maharani, accusing him of paying more attention to the presidential election than to his job as governor.

The SMRC poll found Pranowo has strong support from the fourth-placed PKB, the political arm of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party and to a lesser extent from Golkar and the National Democracy Party (Nasdem) voters.

“Ganjar will remain on top because he is able to attract a considerable number of voters outside of PDIP who are happy with Jokowi’s (Widodo) performance,” the rating agency says in its conclusion.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, wearing traditional Balinese attire, attends a ceremony to celebrate Indonesia’s 74th Independence Day at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency / Anton Raharjo

It is not clear where the governor’s ambitions lie and to what extent he will continue to bow to Megawati’s wishes, given the fact that she faces few challenges to her iron grip on the so-called “Red Bull” party, which she founded in 1999.

But in recent days, Pranowo has shown a populist side by openly criticizing the government’s controversial plan to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on basic necessities, calling it outrageous at a time when families are still struggling to make ends meet.

If the popular governor does break with PDI-P and is nominated by other parties, the Saiful Mujani survey has him winning 35.3% of the vote, well clear of Prabowo on 30.8% and Baswedan on 25.5%. Such a scenario, speculative as it is at this point, would make 2024 a whole new ball game.