Former Indonesian general linked to human rights abuses claims victory in presidential election

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A former general linked to past human rights abuses claimed victory Wednesday in Indonesia’s presidential election, a result that would raise questions about the commitment to democratic values in the sprawling island nation that is the world’s third-largest democracy.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, 72, presented himself as an heir to immensely popular sitting President Joko Widodo, whose son was his running mate. Citing unofficial results, Subianto told thousands of supporters in the capital, Jakarta, that his victory was “the victory of all Indonesians.”

There was no declaration by election officials, and the two former provincial governors who also competed in the balloting did not concede defeat.

Subianto, who was once banned from entering the United States for two decades because of his human rights record, was an army general during the brutal period of the Suharto dictatorship, which ended just over 25 years ago in the archipelago between the Pacific and Indian oceans. He served as a special forces commander in a unit linked to torture and disappearances, allegations that he vehemently denies.

According to unofficial tallies conducted by Indonesian polling agencies, Subianto had 57% to 59% of votes, with more than 80% of the vote counted in polling places that were sampled.

The quick counts are based on actual votes at a sample of polling stations across Indonesia. The laborious official count may not be finished for up to a month, but quick counts have provided an accurate picture of the results of all four presidential elections held in Indonesia since it began direct voting in 2004.

“We should not be arrogant. We should not be proud. We should not be euphoric. We still have to be humble. This victory must be a victory for all Indonesian people,” Subianto said in a speech broadcast on national television from a sports stadium.

To avoid a runoff against his two rivals, Subianto needs more than 50% of all votes cast and at least 20% in each of the country’s provinces.

Widodo’s successor will inherit an economy with impressive growth and ambitious infrastructure projects, including the ongoing transfer of the nation’s capital from congested Jakarta to the frontier island of Borneo at a cost of more than $30 billion.

The election also carries high stakes for the United States and China, since Indonesia has a huge domestic market, natural resources including nickel and palm oil, and diplomatic influence with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Widodo’s rise from a riverside slum to the presidency has shown the vibrancy of Indonesia’s democracy in a region rife with authoritarian regimes. But with his links to a former dictator and Widodo’s son on the ballot, some observers fear that democratic values are eroding.

The logistics of the vote were daunting, involving balloting across 17,000 islands inhabited by 270 million people. Ballots and ballot boxes were transported by boat, motorcycle, horse and on foot in some far-flung locations.

Aside from the presidency, some 20,000 national, provincial and district parliamentary posts were contested by tens of thousands of candidates in one of the world's largest elections. About 10,000 aspirants from 18 political parties eyed the national parliament’s 580 seats alone.

Voters interviewed by The Associated Press expressed hope their next leader would help them achieve greater prosperity in a country where nearly a tenth of the population lives in poverty.

“I hope Indonesia can progress better and that I did not vote for the wrong person,” said Indra Nurohim, a 17-year-old high school student and first-time voter. “I hope we will have a better government.”

Subianto, the oldest presidential candidate, lost in two previous runs to Widodo but was the front-runner in independent surveys. His running mate, Widodo's eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, was allowed to run when the Constitutional Court made an exception to the minimum age requirement of 40.

The court was then headed by Widodo’s brother-in-law, who was removed by an ethics panel for not recusing himself, and Widodo was accused of nepotism.

Critics have accused Widodo of trying to build a political dynasty despite his status as the first president to emerge from outside the political and military elite since the 1998 end of Suharto's dictatorial rule, which was characterized by widespread human rights violations, plunder and political unrest.

Subianto, a former lieutenant general who married one of Suharto's daughters, was a longtime commander in the army special forces, called Kopassus. He was dishonorably discharged in 1998 after Kopassus forces kidnapped and tortured political opponents of Suharto.

At least 22 activists were kidnapped that year, and 13 are still missing. Their families protest weekly outside the presidential palace demanding that their loved ones be accounted for. Subianto never faced a trial and denied any involvement, although several of his men were tried and convicted.

During the campaign period that concluded last weekend, Subianto and his strategists used AI and social media platforms such as TikTok to soften his image by portraying him as a cuddly grandfather to his youthful running mate. Rejected by human rights activists, he danced on the campaign stage and promised to generate nearly 20 million jobs in his first term.

Anies Baswedan, one of the other presidential candidates, is the former head of an Islamic university and served as governor of Jakarta until last year. A former Fulbright scholar, Baswedan was education and culture minister from 2014 to 2016, when Widodo removed him from the Cabinet after accusing him of failing to address problems related to thousands of students affected by forest fires.

Baswedan opposes Widodo’s plan to move the Indonesian capital from Jakarta to Nusantara on Borneo island, which involves constructing government buildings and residential enclaves by clearing lush tropical rainforests.

In an interview with the AP last month, he said democracy in Indonesia is under threat, given Subianto’s choice of the president's son as running mate.

“This means that there is a decline in trust. It means that our democracy is experiencing a decline in quality. It means that many legal rules are being bent,” he said.

Ganjar Pranowo is the governing party candidate but does not have Widodo's support. He was a national legislator for the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle for 10 years before being elected in 2013 for the first of two terms as governor of the vote-rich Central Java region.

Under Widodo, Indonesia saw a period of remarkable growth averaging 5% annually, except in 2020, when the economy contracted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

His economic roadmap, called “Golden Indonesia 2045,” projects that Indonesia will become one of the world’s top five economies, with GDP of up to $9 trillion, exactly a century after it won independence from Dutch colonizers.

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Associated Press journalist Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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