He hoped to succeed Indonesia’s longtime dictator. He ordered the kidnappings of pro-democracy activists. He was accused of atrocities during the ruthless military occupation of East Timor. He has said elections run counter to his country’s culture.
Even so, Prabowo Subianto has spent the past two decades trying his hand at democratic politics, donning different personas in multiple attempts to become Indonesia’s leader.
Now, a month before the next election, nearly every poll shows Mr. Prabowo, 72, leading in the first round of voting. His rise, with the help of a running mate who is the son of the popular departing president, Joko Widodo, has alarmed millions of Indonesians who still remember the brutal and kleptocratic rule of Suharto, Mr. Prabowo’s former boss and father-in-law.
A victory for Mr. Prabowo, his critics warn, would revive a dark past.
“What will happen is the death of democracy,” said Hendardi, the director of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace. Like many Indonesians, he goes by one name. “We have long been against Prabowo,” he added, “and with our limited power, we were still able to prevent him from moving forward. But now he has gained this support.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Prabowo, who is the current defense minister, has dismissed concerns about his track record.
But he has continued to display his strongman bona fides. At a presidential debate this month, Mr. Prabowo talked about the need to develop a strong military, saying without it, a nation “will be crushed,” just as in Gaza today.
He is in a three-way race with Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta, and Ganjar Pranowo, who ran Central Java.
To win outright on Feb. 14, Mr. Prabowo would need to clinch at least 51 percent of the vote. Surveys show that he is far ahead of his rivals, but his support tops off around 46 percent, implying he will probably be forced into a runoff in June and likely to face stiffer competition.
For years, a Prabowo presidency was considered a remote possibility in Indonesia, one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
To many Indonesians, Mr. Prabowo is a symbol of the 32-year reign of Suharto. Following Suharto’s 1998 ouster, he was discharged from the Indonesian military after the armed forces found he was involved in the abduction and torture of pro-democracy activists. More than a dozen remain missing and are feared dead.
Ucok Munandar Siahaan was a 21-year-old student when he vanished on May 15, 1998. His father, Paian Siahaan, 76, discovered later that he had been helping detained anti-government activists. For decades, he has been pressing the authorities for answers.
Every night, Mr. Paian said he prayed the same prayer: “God, please save him.” In recent months, he has added another one: that Mr. Prabowo would not become president.
“In my mind, he will not be elected because of our prayers, the prayers of the oppressed people,” he said.
Mr. Prabowo’s record on human rights — which also includes accusations that his feared Kopassus special forces slaughtered hundreds in a crackdown in East Timor — led the United States to bar him from entering the country for years.
He was never charged in a criminal court.
In 2014, he presented himself as a military strongman, bellowing nationalistic speeches, but lost to Mr. Joko. Five years later, Mr. Prabowo portrayed himself as a devout Muslim and leaned on communal dog whistles, accusing Mr. Joko of secretly being a “Chinese Christian.” He failed again but claimed that he was a victim of election fraud and rallied hardline Islamists to protest the results in violent street demonstrations. (Indonesia has the world’s biggest Muslim population.)
In this campaign, Mr. Prabowo has tried to shed his reputation for a volatile temper by portraying himself as a gemoy, or cute, grandfather who dances at rallies. And he has implicitly won the backing of Mr. Joko by naming his 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his running mate. Billboards all over Indonesia show cartoons of a doe-eyed and chubby Mr. Prabowo together with Mr. Gibran.
Mr. Prabowo was not available to comment, said Budiman Sudjatmiko, the deputy chairman of the Prabowo-Gibran campaign team advisory board, who was once a fierce critic of Mr. Prabowo. The presidential hopeful, he said, had “learned a lot” from being surrounded by Mr. Joko and his supporters.
“He’s no longer in military service, so he should play a role as a civilian politician — reachable, accessible and more friendly,” said Mr. Budiman, who was a political prisoner under the Suharto regime.
This makeover has found traction among Indonesia’s youth, the country’s largest voting bloc. People under 30 did not grow up under Suharto, and many know little about the horrors of his regime because they are not covered in the country’s textbooks.
For Defi Afra, a 21-year-old first-time voter who has seen videos of Mr. Prabowo on TikTok, “He is a funny, humorous figure. He also seems nice and kind.”
Ms. Defi, a student in the city of Yogyakarta, said she only recently learned of Mr. Prabowo’s past on social media. But she shrugged it off, saying, “He couldn’t refuse orders from his superiors.”
The rehabilitation of Mr. Prabowo’s image began years ago, when Mr. Joko appointed him to be defense minister. He emerged as a moderate politician loyal to Mr. Joko, who was known for his down-to-earth style and ability to work with politicians from different parties. The appointment also allowed Mr. Prabowo to re-enter the United States.
But Mr. Prabowo’s tenure in that job has been marred by setbacks, including a failed effort to buy secondhand fighter jets and a botched food security program.
Mr. Joko initially appeared to support his party’s candidate, Mr. Ganjar, the former Central Java official. Then in October, Mr. Gibran joined Mr. Prabowo’s ticket. The alliance, critics say, is an effort by Mr. Joko to increase his influence on Indonesian politics by grooming his son for the presidency. For now, it has pushed Mr. Prabowo’s popularity even higher.
“It is very depressing,” said Goenawan Mohamad, the founder of Tempo, a prominent investigative magazine.
Mr. Prabowo, according to Mr. Budiman, wants an Indonesia that is “more just and more fair socioeconomically,” pointing to his proposal of free milk in schools and plan to transform Indonesia, whose economy is driven by commodities, into a “digital nation.”
Mr. Prabowo was born to one of Indonesia’s most prominent political families. His father, Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, fled Indonesia in the 1950s after he was accused of supporting a rebellion against the government. Mr. Prabowo spent his early years in England and Switzerland and later attended Indonesia’s military academy. In the 1980s, he married a daughter of Suharto, though they separated about 15 years later.
He is thought to have amassed a fortune of about $130 million, according to local news media reports. His brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, a tycoon himself, helped set up the Gerindra Party in the late 2000s that has become the vehicle for Mr. Prabowo’s political ambitions.
In June, he laid out why he was vying again for the presidency.
“I feel that God has given me many blessings, benefits and advantages,” he told a television host. “I have been given the opportunity to understand the problem of this nation.”
But many villagers across Indonesia have a different view. In 2020, Mr. Joko put Mr. Prabowo in charge of a program aimed at curbing the country’s reliance on food imports.
In the village of Desa Talekung Punei, the government said it wanted to clear about 20,000 acres of forest land to grow rice. There were no feasibility studies done to see if the soil was suitable for growing rice, according to Ihwan, a resident and activist for a nonprofit group.
Residents resisted the plan, saying they relied on the forest for their livelihoods. Still, the Defense Ministry sent in teams to clear tracts of land. When the seeds arrived, they had expired and were infested with bugs, Ihwan said. The land now sits abandoned.
Rin Hindryati and Hasya Nindita contributed reporting.