Fluctuating Populism: Prabowo’s Everchanging Populism Across the Indonesian Elections

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto exhibited respect while meeting with his supporters in the city of Palembang, Indonesia, on January 12, 2024. Photo: Muhammad Shahab.

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Please cite as:

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Bachtiar, Hasnan; Smith, Chloe & Shakil, Kainat. (2024). “Fluctuating Populism: Prabowo’s Everchanging Populism Across the Indonesian Elections.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0030

 

Abstract

This paper introduces an interesting aspect or variant of populism which we call ‘fluctuating populism’ through a case study of Prabowo Subianto Joyohadikusumo, the winner of the 2024 Indonesian presidential election, and a career politician for over three decades in the country. We define ‘fluctuating’ quality of populism as the strategic adjustments made by populist leaders to their rhetoric and ideological messaging across different political campaigns in pursuit of electoral victory. Based on the Indonesian presidential elections of 2009, 2014, 2019, and 2024, the paper demonstrates the dynamic nature of populism. It reveals that over just a decade, Prabowo has undergone shifts in ideological stances, rhetorical appeals, and electoral strategies in each election cycle. He has evolved from an ultra-nationalist, chauvinist, and Islamist populist to a technocratic figure with a much softer side. We also find that within these election periods, he never fully prescribed an ideology or rhetoric, but instead fluctuated according to the political landscape. Prabowo’s success in the 2024 election underscores the effectiveness of ‘fluctuating populism’ in navigating Indonesia’s political landscape. This case study shows that this concept offers a framework for understanding the strategic adjustments made by populist leaders and warrants further examination in comparative studies of political leadership.

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Hasnan Bachtiar, Chloe Smith & Kainat Shakil

Introduction

Following Indonesia’s tumultuous transition to independence, the early years of the country’s history fell under two successive authoritarian regimes, called the years of "Guided Democracy" (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). The oppression and silencing of various ethnic, religious, and social groups during these years, together with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, served to exacerbate existing grievances and societal cleavages. The backlash against these developments pushed the country into a new era as President Suharto was forced out of office, and the era of the “New Order” under him came to an end (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). 

Indonesia became a politically important case study of successful democratization in a post-dictatorship country. Since the late 1990s, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country and one of the largest democracies in the world, has experienced a proliferation of political parties and a significant expansion of civil society-led organizations. It had enjoyed the status of being a “Free” democracy from 2005 to 2013 (Freedom House, 2005; Freedom House, 2013), losing this status in 2014 as “Partly Free” (Freedom House, 2014) since it has not been spared by the democratic backsliding which is being observed around the globe (Haggard & Kaufman, 2021). In 2023, Freedom House ranked the country at only 58 out of 100 points on a scale of freedom, classifying it as “Partly Free” (Freedom House, 2023). This marks a significant decline from 2009 when the country was declared entirely “Free” in a similar report (Freedom House, 2009: 332; Freedom House, 2010). It is important to study countries like Indonesia that are experiencing forms of democratic regression or democratic backsliding including in their governance and political leadership. 

This paper focuses on understanding populism in the rapidly changing political landscape of Indonesia, with a specific focus on the years between 2009 and 2024. The case study is based on the latest Indonesian presidential election’s winner Prabowo Subianto Joyohadikusumo. A former general of the special forces (Danjen Kopassus), Prabowo Subianto has become a critical figure in the contemporary context of elections in Indonesia. Known as simply Prabowo, he is a highly controversial former military officer, the son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, and a candidate who ran in the consecutive presidential elections of 2009, 2014, 2019 and 2024.  

Fluctuating Populism: A New Concept

Using the case study of Prabowo, this paper introduces the concept of "fluctuating populism." We define this concept as, “the strategic adjustments made by populist leaders to their rhetoric and ideological messaging across different election cycles in pursuit of electoral victory.” Although there are numerous approaches to defining populism and analysing its phenomena, researchers identify a consensus in populism literature regarding the key features of populism. First, it must claim to speak on behalf of ordinary people (Bryant & Moffitt, 2019), and that the will of these people (‘the people’) is the “cornerstone of political action” (Jawad et al., 2021). Second, these ordinary people must be counterposed to ‘the elites’ (this could be establishments, organisations, governments, political actors etc.) who are preventing them from fulfilling their political preferences (Bryant & Moffitt, 2019; Kurylo, 2022: 129). It is common for minorities and ‘others’ in society to be aligned with ‘the elites’ in populism and are consequently often central to populism’s antagonisms (Kurylo, 2022). Fluctuating populism is closely aligned with Kurt Weyland’s ‘populism as a political strategy’ approach, which focuses on the ability of political actors to interpret the contextual and strategic political environment they inhabit and base their strategy on this assessment (Widian et al., 2023: 365; Weyland, 2017).  

Fluctuating populism builds on this understanding but applies it in a different way to explain how populist political actors modify this strategy throughout several electoral campaigns. It specifically highlights the dynamic nature of populism, in which leaders may modify their appeals to capitalize on changing political dynamics, public sentiment, and electoral demands. Fluctuating populism therefore underscores the tactical calculations and pragmatism employed by populist leaders, who may adjust their ideological content and messaging to maximize electoral support and maintain relevance over time. This is congruent with Weyland’s assessment that “the driving force behind populism is political, not ideological” (Weyland, 2017: 70).

Given the fluctuating populism, characterized by shifting ideas, discourses, and self-representation of leaders, as well as political representation of ‘the people,’ we contend that analyzing the discourses and performances of populist leaders is the most effective method for capturing the strategic adjustments made throughout their political careers (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020). 

Indonesian Presidential Campaigns of Prabowo between 2009-2024

Former Minister of Defense and winner of the February 14, 2024, Presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, pictured at the 77th-anniversary celebration of the Indonesian Air Force in Jakarta on April 9, 2023. Photo: Donny Hery.

 

Prabowo has contested Indonesia’s consecutive Presidential Elections since 2009, securing his first victory in 2024. In 2009, he ran as vice presidential candidate with Megawati, but was defeated by a retired four-star general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Megawati-Prabowo received 26.79%, while Jusuf Kalla-Wiranto and SBY-Boediono received 12.41% and 60.08% of the total votes (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2009).

In the following elections, he was twice defeated by popular technocrat, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in the 2014 and 2019 Presidential elections. In 2014, Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla received 53.15%, while Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa received 46.85% of the total votes from the total electorate (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2014). Then, in 2019, when Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin received 55.32% of the votes, Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno lost the election with 44.68% of votes from the total electorate (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2019). 

The 2024 Indonesian Presidential Elections witnessed Prabowo refine and redefine his political messaging. He allied with his former political opposition leader for 2024 as he chose Jokowi’s son as his running mate – and finally secured an electoral victory. The Prabowo-Gibran team received 58.83% of the total provisional vote count percentage, while Anies-Muhaimin and Ganjar-Mahfud received 24.49% and 16.68% respectively (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, 2024).

The analysis that follows will outline the fluctuating populism Prabowo has demonstrated across these elections, considering the reasons behind – and implications of – his chameleon political persona and strategic alliance building.   

Prabowo’s Significant Political Transformation in the Recent Election

Past election campaigns witnessed Prabowo displaying ultra-nationalist, strongly chauvinist and Islamist populist characteristics (Yilmaz, et al., 2024). In the recent election however, Prabowo has re-emerged as a distinctly technocratic, gentler figure who continued to cultivate some populist tendencies – particularly his self-presentation as guardian of the people’s volonté générale, and a reliance on popular communication strategies that sought (and succeeded) in reaching out to Indonesia’s youth.  

This transformation is indicative of his fluctuating populism, in which significant strategic adjustments have been made to Prabowo’s political messaging, motivated by his quest for power. This article aims to explore the rationale behind the fluctuating populism of Prabowo and to identify and analyze the different ways Prabowo’s populist messaging and strategies have evolved and been influenced by the exigencies of contemporary political realities. 

Prabowo’s 2024 campaigning revealed a clear move away from the more antagonistic elements of populism. Most notably, he let go of chauvinistic messaging, which perpetuates religious-based tensions and hostilities, outrage against minorities, blaming foreign powers, and the scapegoating of elites to gain voters’ appeal (Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Prabowo diverted his attention from ideological issues that deepen social polarization (Yilmaz, 2023) and moved away from narratives and rhetoric against Western neo-liberalism and the perceived greed of Chinese corporations (Hadiz, 2017; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Prabowo also distanced himself from religious right-wing groups, most notably the civilizational populist Defenders Front of Islam (the FPI), whom he had aligned himself with in varying manners in the 2019 election (Yilmaz, et al., 2022).  

While he shed the exclusionary political messaging of past campaigns, Prabowo has continued to rely on a performative populism that seeks to gain the support of an electoral base via the simplification of his political expressions, his self-representation as one of ‘the people,’ and the use of communicative devices to foster a sense of closeness with his audience (Moffitt, 2016; Moffitt, 2020; Ostiguy, 2017). 

For instance, Prabowo abandoned speaking in Sukarno’s (Indonesia’s founding father) rhetorical and commanding language (Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021), adopting instead a more conversational and relatable tone which portrayed a more intimate affinity with his audience. While both are flavors of populism, they seek a different type of connection with ‘the people.’ In the first instance, Prabowo was copying a style that speaks on behalf of the people (Mietzner, 2020) while in the second he focused more on cultivating a perception that he was in close proximity to ‘the people.’ It has also been noted that Indonesia’s new leader simplified complex political problems and their solutions, such as his focus on a program for free lunches and milk to tackle malnutrition and food scarcity – a program that has been criticized for being unrealistic and risks widening the country’s fiscal deficit (Tripathi, 2024; Susilo & Prana, 2024).

In an effort to appeal to youth and shake off his former aggressive persona, Prabowo and his campaign team employed various strategies including rebranding image to reflect a more modern and approachable vibe, engagement through social media, utilizing platforms popular among youth, and creating engaging content. In the most striking example of this rebranding exercise, Prabowo has been portrayed as an adorable, friendly grandpa (gemoy) with a strong presence on social media feeds, and whose online supporters and followers call him handsome (ganteng) or “gemes” which translates as “evocative of the sensation of squeezing the cheeks of a young child” or hugging a puppy (Cook, 2023). This strategy has particularly targeted online and youth communities, where Prabowo is represented in digital spaces with a cartoon photo generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Lamb et al., 2024), and has become known for dancing the Korean Oppa style to disco music and the super hit song “Oke Gas” by the famous rapper, Richard Jersey (Jersey, 2024). It is estimated that millennial and generation Z voters made up nearly 60% of the votes, representing as many as 114 million voters (Cook, 2023). A campaign geared towards attracting youth voters and adapting to the current digital culture was therefore a strong strategic move by Prabowo. 

Weyland notes that social media is used by contemporary populist leaders to “create the impression of direct contact” with their followers, and “give the personalistic leader a daily presence in the lives of millions of followers” (Weyland, 2017: 74). He also points out the potency of this communication strategy if the leader “commands charisma” (Weyland, 2017). This charisma, Weyland argues, can help give form to the relationship between the leader and “the people” (Weyland, 2017: 66). Although Prabowo the dancing gemoy and his outspoken campaign rhetoric (which may appear to be unethically mocking his campaign opponents) might not be as immediately charismatic as other populist politicians such as the moralist style performed by Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo (CNN Indonesia, 2023; Tempodotco, 2023), he has succeeded in capturing the attentions and affections of many through performing a playful persona. 

In the following four tables, we aim to visualize these fluctuations as clearly as possible. Each table provides valuable insights into different dimensions of his fluctuating populism, shedding light on key shifts over time.

Table 1 – Political Performance

2009 Constructed a political persona that was pro-‘the people’ and antagonistic towards ‘the elites’ (Sutopo, 2009: 20).A masculine stateman image (e.g. presenting himself like Napoleon, Soekarno, or Barrack Obama) (Tomsa, 2009).
2014 A political outsider heroically trying to save Indonesia from its decaying democracy (Mietzner, 2015: 17-18).Campaigned as a “strongman” e.g. by riding his horse around stadiums and promising a return to the authoritarian model of the New Order (Lindsey, 2024).Maintained his iron-fist image which is rooted in his former military career. Continuing his reputation as a strongman that would defend the nation.
2019 Claimed he was the only leader capable of fixing Indonesia’s many problems (Lam, 2024).Continued to favor large public rallies and protests (Lam, 2024).Perpetuated an image of piety and conservatism (Widian et al., 2023: 15).Maintained his iron-first image but the strongman orientation was to defend the believers (Muslims). Given the Ahok protests foreshadowed the elections.
2024 Adopted a “cuddly” and “avuncular” persona – particularly online (Strangio, 2024).TikTok videos of him petting his cats, performing dance routines at political rallies (Strangio, 2024).Positioned himself as a “patriot ready to serve his people” (pengabdi)/technocratic institutionalist (Lam, 2024).An observable fluidity in his masculinity which is oscillating between the former strongman and the friendly older figure.

Table 2 – Political Communication

2009 Anti-Elite (blaming elites for failure to improve public welfare) (Sutopo, 2009: 14).Anti-foreign powers (e.g. attacked the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonoleadership and his support for foreign economic interests) (Mujani & Liddle, 2010: 40).A supporter of the indigenous people (Prasetyawan, 2012: 321).A defender of “the interests of small farmers, fishermen, and petty traders” (Mujani & Liddle, 2010: 40)
2014 Anti-‘the Elite’ (condemnation of political elites and environment of corruption and money politics) (Aspinall, 2015: 1-2).Nationalist (describing Indonesia’s poor economic conditions as product of country’s exploitation by foreign powers (Aspinall, 2015: 1-2).Favored large public rallies during which he would refer to his audience as brothers (saudara) (Lam, 2024).
2019 Enhancement of Islamist narratives (Widian et al., 2023: 364).Aligning himself with Islamic figures and movements (Widian et al., 2023: 364).Used religious populist identity politics and civilizational narratives to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinctions. Narratives against the ‘corrupt elite’ and dangerous ‘others’ (minority religio-ethnic groups) were common.
2024 “Keen student and follower” of Jokowi’s leadership, and promotes himself as continuing Jokowi’s legacy, policies, and economic progress (Lam, 2024).Aside from promising continuity, he simplified other political solutions and their solutions (such as the free lunch program).Communication became far more inclusive and open – e.g. by making ‘political courtesy visits’ to rivals that were highly publicized (Lam, 2024).

Table 3 – Target Audience

2009 Mobilizing the poor and marginalized people “because they are fed up with all the lies” of the elites (Sutopo, 2009: 16).Indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, fishermen (Mujani & Liddle, 2010; Prasetyawan, 2012).
2014 Focus on appealing to the rural poor and low-income workers (Mietzner, 2015: 17-18).Initial integration of Islamic rhetoric to appeal to conservative portion of population (Widian et al., 2023: 361).
2019 Significant signaling to Islamist and conservative figures and organizations.Attempts to mobilize the ‘ummah’ and the pious Muslims who felt threatened by social change.
2024 Prabowo sought to win over Jokowi’s significant support base. Reached out to moderate and mainstream Muslim voters and leaders. Used digital platforms to disseminate content that appeals to Indonesia’s youth and online audiences (Lam, 2024).

Table 4 – Narrative and Rhetoric

2009

Pro-‘the people

“It is a great honor this afternoon to declare that I am ready to fight alongside Ibu Megawati. I am ready to fight for the people of Indonesia. I am ready to fight for justice and the greatness of the Indonesian nation. We are ready to bring great change for the people of Indonesia. We are ready to return the economy of Indonesia into the hands of the Indonesian people. We will fight for the people, with the people, for justice, for your greatness and welfare. … Do we want to continue the wrong system? Do we want to continue the economic system that has not succeeded in bringing prosperity to the people? Or do we change (the system), we return the Indonesian nation to the Indonesian people? … Let us together reclaim the sovereignty of the people (so that) it returns to the hands of the Indonesian people. … On the coming 8 July (2009), … let us unite, let us fight for the greatness of the nation and the justice of the people,” (Metro TV, 2023). 

Pro-the marginalized and the poor

“Are we willing for Indonesia to become a nation of lackeys? A nation of laborers? Always have to be poor, always have to be left behind. Farmers need credit for small capital, not given. I am not advocating hatred for the rich,” (Metro TV, 2009). 

Antagonism against the elites

“Our nation was colonized for hundreds of years. I think the influence on our culture is quite big. I see that this has resulted, especially in our elites, in a subconscious sense of inferiority complex. This has resulted in our elites often producing national policies that are detrimental to their own nation,” (Metro TV, 2023). 

Condemning the foreign powers

“I think the challenge for both of us is that we do not want to see our nation continue to be a weak nation, a nation that is always subject to foreign powers, a nation that can only ask for foreign assistance, a nation that is always a sweet child in front of world powers. I think this is a cultural challenge for us, can we rise as a sovereign nation, an independent nation?” (Metro TV, 2023). 

Anti-the foreign powers/external dangerous others

“We recognize that our culture is the result of influences from everywhere. We don’t need to be afraid; we don’t need to be inferior. We should enjoy that richness. But we should take the good from those foreign influences. … We are a very friendly nation, very open to these foreign influences. But in my opinion, in the competition between nations in this world, which is very hard and very cruel, sometimes that good nature can be abused by foreign powers. The essential nature of our tribes has always been to be hospitable to foreign influences. We always receive guests well. After a while, the guest is no longer a guest. First, he’s a guest, he wants to trade, then he wants to control everything. I think we must look in the mirror, that sometimes we must admit that we are also a naive nation, a nation that is too naive. We assume that other people’s intentions are always good intentions because we have good intentions. … To overcome these weaknesses, … through education. Education is the key to the revival of Indonesian culture and nation,” (Metro TV, 2023).

2014

Nationalism & anti-foreign powers

“We come from a nation that has honor, a nation that has ideals, a nation that wants to live like other nations, we do not want to be a nation of errand boys, we do not want to be a nation of lackeys, we do not want to be a nation that is trampled by other nations,” (Gerindra TV, 2014). 

Masculinity

“After our fathers, our predecessors, we valiantly resisted being re-colonized,” (Gerindra TV, 2014). 

Anti-elites

“Now the Indonesian nation remains under threat of being re-colonized, … they are smarter, they don’t send soldiers, they just buy and bribe our leaders … our money every year is lost 1000 trillion Rupiah,” (Gerindra TV, 2014). 

Populist promise: Change

“… do you want change, or do you want the situation we have now? … it can only come if we eradicate corruption to its roots,” (Gerindra TV, 2014).

2019

Pro-the people

“Thousands of people depend on us, people we never knew… but what we do now will determine what happens to them… perhaps tens of millions of our people, connected to this room with communication technology, because for the next 92 nights will determine the future of Indonesia, this is an election for the entire nation of Indonesia,” (Gerindra TV, 2019). 

Pro-the marginalized and the poor & nationalism 

“… in Klaten, farmers are sad, because during the rice harvest, rice from foreign countries is flooded. In East Java, sugar farmers are sad, because during the harvest, sugar is flooded from foreign countries. … mothers complain, where prices are already unaffordable, … when salt farmers are also experiencing difficulties, a flood of salt from foreign countries… Is this the country we want? … this is an insult to the founders of our nation,” (Gerindra TV, 2019). 

Anti-the elites and foreign powers

“… what we will do is reorient development … from the wrong direction to the right one, which defends the interests of the Indonesian nation, … stop the leakage of money to foreign countries. … infrastructure projects should not be the preserve of certain elite groups,” (Gerindra TV, 2019). “You are the people‘s army, you are the people‘s police, you cannot defend a handful of people, let alone defend foreign stooges (while banging on the table),” (Gerindra TV, 2019). 

Nationalism, element of motherhood, populist promise

“I quote Bung Karno’s speech… the movement was born because of the unbearable suffering of the people… you are here because you understand, you understand because this country is not right, mothers know better this country is sick, there has been a very severe injustice in this republic. … a handful of people control the wealth of hundreds of millions of Indonesians. … the problem is that Indonesia’s wealth is being robbed, stolen, we need to elect a government that can stop this robbery. You vote for 02 to save your children and grandchildren,” (Gerindra TV, 2019).

2024

Technocratic nationalism/technocratic institutionalism

“Prabowo-Gibran for an advanced Indonesia fights to eliminate poverty from the earth of Indonesia. We fight to bring prosperity to all Indonesians. We continue what the previous presidents have built. We are grateful for all the presidents who have worked for the people of Indonesia. We thank all the fighters, all the patriots, we thank Bung Karno, Bung Hatta, Bung Sjahrir… we thank Presidents Soeharto, BJ Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and we thank President Joko Widodo as well,” (Gerindra TV, 2024).

Pro-the people, populist promise, nationalism

“If Prabowo-Gibran receive the mandate from the people, we will lead the people of Indonesia… I have said many times, that our future is bright, we are now the 16th richest country in the world… we can even become the 5th in the world. The condition is that we must be harmonious, united, peaceful, we must not be pitted again, we must not be divided… Our children are important, isn’t it important to be able to eat and drink milk? Those who say it is not important are not sane people, not people who love the country. Prabowo-Gibran will not hesitate, we will feed the children of Indonesia,”  (Gerindra TV, 2024).

Contributing Factors to Prabowo’s Fluctuating Populism

Billboards depicting presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto and Gibran have gone viral on social media because the visuals made by artificial intelligence (AI) in Jakarta, Indonesia. on December 23, 2023. Photo: Toto Santiko Budi.

Several influences likely played a role in the fluctuations observed in campaigns. One significant aspect is Prabowo’s ability to learn from past experiences and adapt his strategies accordingly. Over the years, Prabowo has gained valuable insights into the political landscape and has honed his approach based on lessons learned from previous election cycles. Moreover, Prabowo has demonstrated a keen awareness of evolving societal norms and values, strategically aligning himself with prevailing sentiments and ideologies that resonate with the electorate. Furthermore, Prabowo has made strategic alliances with key political actors, groups, and movements that hold sway in different election cycles. By forging alliances with influential figures and tapping into networks of support, Prabowo has been able to garner broader political relevance and leverage the strength of collective mobilization.

Learning from his past defeats

First, he learned from his defeats in the 2009, 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. In all of his political battles, he operationalized a populist performance, presenting himself as a charismatic leader who was pro-indigenous, defending Islam in Indonesia, and standing up against the corrupt and Westernized elite, and foreign powers and influence (Mietzner, 2020). 

Furthermore, in both unsuccessful campaigns, Prabowo proved eager to win the support of various nativist, racist, and hardline groups. For instance, in 2017, hoping to gain Islamist support in the elections two years later, he eagerly supported Anies Baswedan in the quest to defeat Ahok (Basuki Tjahaya Purnama), the incumbent Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, in the gubernatorial election. In the process, he went as far as encouraging a severe and dramatic process of minority criminalization and discrimination (Bachtiar, 2023). However, despite receiving the support of civilizational populist leader Rizieq Shihab, the FPI, and other Islamist groups, and despite coming within “striking distance of the presidency” in both elections (Jaffrey & Warburton, 2024), Prabowo faced defeat. The strategic politician is likely to have taken stock and understood he needed a new political strategy to win the 2024 election.   

Stepping away from polarizing religious populism

Second, Prabowo did not instrumentalize religion in his recent campaign. In previous elections – particularly the 2019 election – Prabowo attempted to gain popularity by weighing in on the ideological division between Islamist and pluralist worldviews in Indonesian society (Mietzner, 2020). He did this by aligning himself with Islamist groups and movements, performing piety, and using religion to create distinctions between ‘the people’ and the ‘elites’ and ‘others’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Yabanci, 2020). Yet although Islamist identity politics and civilizational populism significantly intensified the people’s emotions and populist demands (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2023), it also inspired a wave of resistance from the silent majority: pluralist Muslims. Identity politics succeeded in forming cross-class alliances – evident in the mass rallies against Ahok – but they also provoked resentment, including from leaders of the consequential mainstream Islamic organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. Both organizations maintain a sharp focus on diversity and national integration (Burhani, 2018; Bruinessen, 2021). By not appealing to – and actively repelling – the pluralist and mainstream Muslims, Prabowo learnt in hindsight that his chances of success had been considerably hindered.

Becoming a technocratic figure and ally of his former opposition

Third, Prabowo went through the important process of becoming a technocrat when he agreed to join the Jokowi cabinet and accepted the role of Indonesia’s Defense Minister. In this context, he built his image as a big-hearted knight with a more inclusive outlook, and this role helped him signal “to both domestic and international audiences that he was fit for high office” and could put aside his own ambition to care for Indonesia (Jaffrey & Warburton, 2024). In taking this role, and in refashioning his political branding, he betrayed his coalition with the previous alliances such as the civilizational populist group, the FPI, who were consequently banned by Jokowi, leading to their dissolution (Power, 2018). Abandoning previous right-wing and Islamist allies, Prabowo was able to focus attention on “aligning with status nationalists who wield control over the state bureaucracy,” (Gultasli, 2024).

Prabowo’s closer affinity with Jokowi also allowed him to enact another key strategy in his 2024 campaign: Winning Jokowi’s support and endorsement. In favorable circumstances for Prabowo, Jokowi had come to a head with Megawati, Soekarno’s daughter, in the camp of his party in power (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – PDIP). Megawati had insulted Jokowi when she suggested he should submit to party leadership (as a worker/petugas partai), despite his status as President of Indonesia. As a result, Jokowi withdrew his support for Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, who had been endorsed by the PDIP as its presidential candidate (Bachtiar, 2023). Aware of Jokowi’s popularity, particularly because of his strong economic performance, Prabowo keenly promoted himself as the candidate who would carry on this legacy (Strangio, 2024).

No longer in coalition with Anies Baswedan – who used to support him but became his rival in the 2024 election, having distanced himself from Islamist civilizational populism and its proponents, and seeing an opportunity in the PDIP’s internal conflict, made joining forces with Gibran a strategic move. Additionally, by forsaking the chauvinistic and polarizing style of political campaigning, eschewing the politics of identity, rebranding himself as a competent technocrat, amping up the duo’s youth appeal, and securing the backing of the ruling elite, (in this case Jokowi et al.), Prabowo-Gibran succeeding in winning the election in the first round. 

Responding to changing perceptions of masculinity in society

Prabowo is still seen by many as an authoritarian strongman, which is linked to his background as Suharto’s son-in-law and most loyal elite soldier (Slater, 2023). Suharto himself was a military general who ruled Indonesia in an almost entirely autocratic manner for more than 30 years. Prabowo’s experience in military leadership continued to play a central role; some voters are still likely drawn to an assertive style of leadership and see him as a proficient leader who can effectively attend to the welfare of everyday Indonesians (Gilang & Almubaroq, 2022). Soon after the 2024 election, Prabowo was awarded the four-star general status by the outgoing President (Haizan, 2024). Prabowo likely continued to benefit from the strongman portrayal among segments of the Indonesian society. However, he also succeeded in gaining wider support by outwardly shedding the more hardened and aggressive parts of his image, particularly in communications that would reach younger generations of Indonesians. 

The performative public transformation of the former military man speaks volumes about the changing hues of masculinity in Indonesian society. Connell’s work on gender discusses the idea of hegemonic masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) and this can be applied to the fluctuating ideals of masculinity Prabowo has responded to in his political campaigning. For decades, the President-elect of Indonesia maintained a reputation as a classic ‘strongman’ image as an ex-military high-ranking official and also as the son-in-law of a former dictator. However, as discussed, the most recent elections witnessed him performing the role of the ‘cool uncle’ or ‘friendly grandpa’ who plays into more contemporary masculinity norms among Indonesia’s many youth voters (The Economist, 2024). 

While various definitions contest what is the ‘ideal’ or ‘the hegemon’ masculinity, there is a clear indication that amongst Indonesian millennials and Gen-Zs, the traditional ideal of a ‘strongman,’ as Prabowo was formerly and widely known as being, does not attract their support. Prabowo’s sensitivity to this change led him to modify his masculinity to become more acceptable in society. A friendlier, gemoy persona has gained him the acceptance of youth in a way that the highly composed military man or conservative religious figure of his past would have been unable to. 

Conclusion

Some continue to regard Prabowo as a right-wing populist with an authoritarian agenda detrimental to democracy (Susilo & Prana, 2024; Nurdiansyah, 2024; Testriono & Auliya, 2024; Wejak, 2024; Ramadhani, 2024). Prabowo’s past from the 1990s is tarnished by a legacy of violence against socially marginalized groups in society. Concerns about Prabowo often relate to his record as a special forces officer, a role in which he was accused of involvement in several cases of gross human rights violations, particularly during the democratic transition process (Tan, 2015; Suh, 2016).

There are trepidations about the authenticity of Prabowo’s shift in rhetorical and ideological messaging, and what lies underneath Prabowo’s successful attempt at gaining power and wielding control in Indonesia. How far removed is this softer and more inclusive gemoy character from the strong and masculine, ultra-nationalist and chauvinist described by scholars previously (Hadiz, 2017; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). After all, it was only recently that American Indonesianist Slater argued Prabowo is “the sort of ethnonationalist, polarizing, strongman who would scapegoat minorities and ride roughshod to power, as other world leaders recently had,” (Slater, 2023: 103-104). These concerns were also highlighted by The Guardian writers, who claimed that Prabowo’s victory in 2024 was a sign that “winter is coming” for Indonesian democracy (Ratcliffe & Richaldo, 2024). Similarly, Kurlantzick argues that democracy is truly lost with Prabowo’s victory (Kurlantzick, 2024). 

Given all these, Prabowo is a crucial political figure to test the concept of fluctuating populism. His transformations across various presidential elections are notable: From 2014 to 2024 he has refashioned his public image from a classic populist ‘strongman’ with authoritarian tendencies and polarizing rhetoric to adopting a strongly conservative and pious Islamist persona and most recently, a soft, cuddly grandpa who attracts youth through TikTok dances and photos with his cats. Along the way he has renewed and shifted his policy promises, political allegiances, public image, and the support bases he appeals to. 

A valid question that remains is if the ‘happy grandpa’ now metamorphoses back into the iron-fisted strong man. His pattern of fluctuations suggests he could, although we need to keep in mind that Prabowo is a patient, tactful and pragmatic populist, who adapts in accordance with the expectations of voters and constantly changing socio-political trends. What fluctuating populism does tell us, is that Prabowo is likely be remain an ever-changing mosaic of performances, views, persons, and policies.     

Introducing the concept of fluctuating populism prompts further investigations into other case studies. Identifying and analyzing the political maneuvers of other populist actors provides an opportunity to develop and test this concept further in both country-level and comparative studies. Furthermore, this study firmly rooted populism in the recent socio-political history of Indonesia and allowed the authors to examine not only the fluctuating populism of a leader but the fluctuating demands of the electorate. 


 

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

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