The Betrayal at the Heart of Prabowo's Challenge

07/28/2014 01:23 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2014

JAKARTA--The first time I heard the name Prabowo Subianto, it was spoken with admiration by a few highly decorated United States military officers who regarded Prabowo as one of the best soldiers and foreign military leaders that they had ever known. When I first had the opportunity some years later to spend time with Prabowo and his well-connected brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the former general came across exactly as advertised: tough, decisive, insightful, and highly idealistic about Indonesia and its future. But there was one quality, both in the stories he told about himself and the ones he told about others, that came across more than any other: loyalty. He was a man, as the saying goes, whose word was his bond -- a quality he worked hard to bring to all of his business and personal relationships, and one he expected in other people, too.

As Prabowo and his team announced last week that they would challenge the results of the Indonesian Presidential election -- a few days after the General Elections Commission announced that populist upstart Joko Widodo, the first-term governor of Jakarta, had defeated Prabowo in the July 9 election by more than 8 million votes -- I thought back to the way he talked about loyalty.

It may be, as Prabowo's campaign has charged, that they have evidence of massive fraud and widespread irregularities at 52,000 polling places -- which, if true, would necessitate a re-vote of some kind. It may be, as some journalists argue, that Prabowo realizes that if Jokowi (as Joko is popularly known) serves back-to-back five-year terms as president, the opportunity for the now-61 year old former special forces officer to run again may be gone forever, and this last gasp is to forestall the inevitable. It may be, as some pundits speculate, that Prabowo believes he has allies on the constitutional court, the ultimate mediator of the electoral process, and can win in court what he couldn't win by ballot. It may be, as policy analysts have suggested, that Prabowo believes the legitimacy of the entire election is subject to challenge, since the court recently ruled that the current election mechanism contradicted the Constitution. Or, it may be that Prabowo -- who assembled a coalition after the parliamentary elections in April that controls more than half of the 560 seats in the incoming House of Representatives -- realizes that a loss would lead his partners to abandon him for Jokowi, putting his coalition at risk.

Any or all of that may be true. But there's one story that hasn't received enough attention that may explain some of the ferocity -- bordering on incoherence -- with which Prabowo and his camp have carried themselves since voting ended on July 9: He feels betrayed by the very people who have been declared victors in the 2014 election. He hasn't just been betrayed once -- in his mind, he has been betrayed three times by people who gave their word and then broke it.

The first betrayal came in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. Megawati Sukarnoputri -- the former Indonesian president, daughter of Indonesian founding father Sukarno and leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known as PDI-P -- had lost the 2004 Presidential election to one of her ministers, army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Determined to run again in 2009, Megawati appealed to the popular Prabowo to join the ticket. On the day they registered with the General Elections Commission as candidates for president and vice president, Megawati also signed an agreement - dubbed the Batu Tulis Pact - that outlined her political commitment to Prabowo. It clearly stated that Megawati would "support the nomination of Prabowo Subianto as a presidential candidate in the 2014 presidential election." But when the time came to make good on her promise, Megawati made what journalist Hasyim Widhiarto called a "surprise decision," nominating the first-year governor Jokowi as PDI-P's presidential candidate instead.

The second betrayal came in the aftermath of the 2012 election. Jokowi, who had been a popular hometown mayor of the central Java town of Solo, was so little known in Jakarta that Megawati initially resisted efforts to appoint him as the PDI-P candidate for governor. It wasn't until Prabowo offered the support of his Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party that Megawati agreed to appoint the former furniture maker as her candidate for governor. The credibility that came with Prabowo's endorsement, along with the significant funds that Gerindra put into campaign coffers, played a large part in propelling Jokowi to victory. It's not for nothing that Prabowo reminded the media earlier this year that he "made Jokowi" and that he "brought (Joko) from Surakarta to Jakarta." According to sources close to the former general, Prabowo asked only one thing in return, which Jokowi readily agreed to: that he would serve out his full five-year term as governor. It was a commitment he reinforced publicly. But like American President Barack Obama, to whom he's often compared, Joko served just one of his five years before he began to campaign for higher office against Prabowo.

The third betrayal came this past March. With broad speculation that the now-popular Jokowi would get into the presidential race, Prabowo and his team repeatedly reached out to the Governor to inquire about his plans and were told that there was no truth to the rumors -- Jokowi had much work to do to fulfill his campaign promises in Jakarta and he fully intended to see that work through. Sources at the highest levels of Prabowo's campaign team tell me that in mid-March, Joko spoke directly to Prabowo's brother, Hashim, and assured him that he would not run for president in 2014. Two days after Jokowi made that promise, he accepted Megawati's nomination as the PDI-P candidate for president. Hashim has been furious ever since.

The fact of these three betrayals isn't to suggest that they are the entire reason that Prabowo continues to contest the election. A cynic might read this history and think back on the popular American phrase -- "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." If Prabowo and his team continued to believe Jokowi's assurances, they have nobody to blame but themselves. But for a man who places so much value on loyalty -- whose loyalty to Indonesia's leadership and its military in the waning days of Suharto in 1998 caused him to undertake many questionable actions, which continue to haunt him to this day -- it's not hard to see how these repeated betrayals make this continuing campaign much more personal to Prabowo.

In truth, it hasn't served the man or his cause very well. The more desperate and belligerent that Prabowo becomes, the more likely he is to turn the possibility of abandonment at the hands of his coalition partners into a self-fulfilling prophecy. While Prabowo has never been as reckless or as threatening as he has been constantly portrayed by the media in the "new hope versus old order" storyline that has defined the 2014 election, the longer he drags this out, the more he will reinforce every negative stereotype about himself that his opponents have worked hard to create.

For the sake of Indonesia's 16 year-old democracy -- as well as his continued statesmanship at a time when there are more doubts and uncertainty about Jokowi's leadership than his supporters care to admit or his feel-good, up-from-the-bootstraps story suggests -- Prabowo should admit that he lost and concede the election. For a man whose word has always been his bond, it's too early for "never surrender" to be the last words we hear from Prabowo Subianto.

It's time for him to go to work in Parliament, lead the opposition, and prove to the electorate that he is every bit the thoughtful, experienced, and deeply idealistic leader that his strongest supporters know him to be -- and that Indonesia needs him to be.

Stanley Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades.