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JAKARTA, Indonesia – Dismissed from the military amid speculation of rights abuses, exiled in Jordan, and once banned from the United States over his alleged dark past, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is now in pole position to be Indonesia’s next leader.
The twice presidential loser is trying his luck for a third time, with incumbent Joko Widodo’s tacit backing, and the hugely popular president’s son as his running mate.
The former special forces commander has undergone a remarkable transformation since being appointed defense minister in 2019, cultivating a persona that is more charismatic statesman than the fiery, pious nationalist he earlier portrayed, analysts say.
From an elite Indonesian family and once the son-in-law of late strongman president Suharto, Prabowo is accused of involvement in the kidnapping of student activists in 1998 and human rights abuses in Papua and East Timor.
The allegations are unproven, and Prabowo has always denied any responsibility.
And as the 72-year-old draws closer to the February 14 vote, the numbers suggest his rebranding is working.
Surveys have consistently shown Prabowo is the candidate to beat, with a lead that stretched to a huge 28 points in polls released late last week by Indikator Politik and Lembaga Survei Indonesia, which projected him winning a majority with 51.8% and 51.9% support respectively.
Unable to run after serving the maximum two terms, Widodo, better known as Jokowi, has signalled his support for once bitter enemy Prabowo, whom he defeated in the 2014 and 2019 elections.
With his 36-year-old son as a possible vice president, Jokowi is seeking to retain some influence in government, analysts say.
By appointing Prabowo to his cabinet, Jokowi provided him with a level of validation and visibility he previously lacked, earning him red carpet treatment as defense minister on trips from Paris to Beijing, and the end of his de facto US travel ban in 2020 when he visited the Pentagon.
His 9 million Instagram followers get to see snaps from his day job, interspersed with offerings of his cats, artistic black and white portraits, and vintage family photographs.
Many young Indonesians have become endeared to Prabowo, particularly his awkward dance moves in public that have gone viral on TikTok, helping him to tap a key demographic.
More than half of Indonesian voters are under 40, with limited knowledge of the darker narratives of his hardline military past and his ascent under Suharto’s autocratic rule.
“Prabowo’s team is clearly portraying Prabowo in a ‘softer’ way in an effort to win over undecided voters. It’s a change from previous campaigns where we’ve seen nationalist populist Prabowo, and pro-Islamist Prabowo,” said Ross Tapsell, from the Australian National University.
In another sign of the image makeover, in a television interview, Prabowo, known for his legendary temper, came across as humorous and avuncular.
Referring to his time as a soldier, Prabowo said: “Maybe the perception of me was that I was tough, scary. I am not scary now, right?”