A man from Minahasa competing in the 2019 presidential election is an echo of the past. It’s a direct repeat of the 2014 presidential election, when presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s use of identity politics seemed as if it would gain traction in his ancestral land of North Sulawesi. In reality, his defence of radical Muslim groups ended up causing problems in an area with a majority Christian population.
As Indonesia heads to the polls on 17 April, the question of whether Prabowo can pull off a win in North Sulawesi and win his place in the presidential palace is one worth paying attention to.
The 2019 presidential election isn’t the first time former general Prabowo Subianto, who founded the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), will contest a presidential election. He was Megawati Soekarnoputri’s running mate in 2009, and in 2014 ran as a presidential candidate with Hatta Rajasa as his vice-presidential pick. He’s now hoping he’ll be third time lucky with the help of his wealthy running mate Sandiaga Uno, and identity politics is a talking point that he’s returned to once again.
Highlighting Prabowo’s Minahasa blood
The city of Manado became the first area that Prabowo visited at the start of his campaign for the presidential bid in 2019. A giant banner was erected on the campaign stage to welcome him, using his full name, “Welcome Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo Sigar Maengkom”. Prabowo does not often use his full name; the inclusion of “Sigar Maengkom” is usually reserved for his appearances in Manado.
In his speech, Prabowo mentioned that North Sulawesi is special to him because of his Minahasa blood: “I chose [to kick off the first campaign at] my birthplace. Kawanua (the local name used to refer to someone with Minahasa blood) blood flows through my body, the blood of Minahasa.”
He also took great pains to make the link between his heritage and the area of Langowan. “I am orla, a Langowan person. So I hope that I can get support from you in North Sulawesi,” he said.
He promised to return to North Sulawesi: “Because there is a bond to my ancestors’ tomb in Langowan and Tondano. I hope you will help me. Choose [to elect] a local son to the palace.
This message was in the same vein as his 2014 presidential campaign. Back then, he’d emphasised that he wasn’t opposed to any religion, especially Christianity, even though he was being supported by the Koalisi Merah Putih (Red and White Coalition), made up of Muslim parties such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the hardline Muslim group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
Prabowo has also reinforced his comments with colourful stories of his family background. In front of thousands of supporters in Manado in March 2019, Prabowo dismissed allegations that he and his allies are hardline Muslims who defend radical Islam. According to the presidential hopeful, the allegations were a case of politically motivated slander against him.
“How could Pak Mangindaan support radical Islam?” he asked, referring to the former North Sulawesi governor who was sharing the stage with him. While Prabowo is going for the presidency, Mangindaan is running for the House of Representatives, for which voting will also take place on 17 April.
“I was nine months in the womb of a Christian mother, how could I become a radical Muslim? Use common sense. But now many don’t use common sense, they just talk,” Prabowo added.
During the 2014 presidential election campaign, the Prabowo camp had also enlisted other members of his family, sending his brother Hashim to campaign in Langowan, where the wider Sigar family—Prabowo’s maternal line—are based. As part of the campaign, Hashim described how the family represents the very premise of pluralism. Born and raised by a Muslim father and a Protestant Christian mother, the siblings have embraced different religions.
But Prabowo’s identity politics at that time didn’t translate to votes, not just in the Minahasa District, but also in his own village of Tounelet, where the wider Sigar family still lives.
Prabowo was pummelled in that area. According to the results of the plenary session of the Minahasa General Elections Committee (KPU), Prabowo lost in three out of four sub-districts in the Langowan region, winning narrowly in only one. Results at the Minahasa Regency and North Sulawesi District levels were also disappointing. Current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo won 53.88% of the vote to Prabowo’s 46.12% at the provincial level.
Support from the Sigar family
Representatives of Prabowo’s wider Sigar family in Langowan say that they support his political aspirations. The family, from his mother’s side, aren’t influenced by the religious tensions that have developed and been exploited by Prabowo’s camp. “It’s a source of pride for us that one of our family members is a national figure who’s competing in the presidential election. Especially if he becomes the highest leader in Indonesia,” says Danny Sumolang, the chairperson of the Sigar Family Unit based in Langowan.
Prabowo’s candidacy in the 2019 presidential election is once again a hot topic at Sigar family gathering. They talk about how he should at least win in his own area, where much of his extended family still resides. Despite his previous defeats in the 2009 and 2014, the Sigar family remains optimistic that he’ll win the election this time around. The family also admit that there are some members who don’t support Prabowo; in fact, some had come out to say that they were Jokowi supporters. “But whatever, we are still pro-Prabowo,” adds Danny.
“It’s a source of pride for us that one of our family members is a national figure who’s competing in the presidential election”
The last time Prabowo paid a formal visit to the Sigar family in Langowan was back in December 2012. At that time, word had already got out that he was going to run for president in the 2014 election, and he was eagerly welcomed by the family and other supporters. A traditional bendi vehicle (a horse-pulled cart) picked him up when he arrived at Langowan, and the group headed to the Sigar family funeral complex in Tounelet Village. In front of the tomb of his ancestor Benyamin Thomas Sigar—a veteran of the Diponegoro War between the Dutch colonialists and Javanese fighters—Prabowo lowered his head as a sign of respect.
After the visit to the tomb of his ancestors, Prabowo attended the Sigar family’s Christmas service held at Danny’s house. It was made into a big affair, replete with papaya and fern leaves, as well as traditional cakes and a spread “complete with coffee, because Prabowo likes coffee,” Danny adds. Prabowo was also given the honour of lighting the Christmas candles as part of the family service.
When New Naratif visited, Danny proudly showed off photographs of the event, neatly organised in an album. After the visit, the Sigar family’s support for him increased “because we’d heard he would run in the  presidential election.” When Prabowo did eventually stand for election, members of the family volunteered and did their best to garner votes for him.
The Sigar family history
Prabowo comes from a long-established Minahasa family. He’s a fifth generation descendent of Benyamin Thomas Sigar, also known as Tawaijln Sigar—a troop leader at the time of the Diponegoro War which lasted from 1825 to 1830.
According to the Minahasa historian Bode Gray Talumewo, 1,421 Minahasans recruited by the Dutch to fight alongside members of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army and quell the resistance of Javanese Prince Diponegoro’s forces on Java Island. Under the leadership of Benyamin Thomas Sigar, this force succeeded in carrying out this task; Prince Diponegoro was captured, then exiled to Manado and eventually Makassar, where he died in 1855. After the war, Benyamin served as a legal elder (village head) and district head, and was eventually given the titular rank of major by the colonial government.
Benyamin’s story continues to be passed down through generations of the Sigar family, and is considered a source of great pride. Buried in the Sigar Family Cemetery in Langowan, Benyamin’s tomb is said to be one of the most striking in the area; it is, at least, the largest.
This pride now extends to Benyamin’s politically ambitious descendent. “Prabowo is just like Benyamin,” Danny says “He inherited the blood of the leader of Sigar.”
In fact, Prabowo’s history stems from both sides of the Diponegoro War. While Benyamin on his mother’s side fought for the Dutch, Prabowo’s father Soemitro’s family were close relatives of commanders and officials of the Diponegoro side of the conflict. When it came to matters of religion, the family was also diverse: Soemitro was a Muslim, while Dora was a Protestant Christian throughout her life. Of the couple’s four children (including Prabowo), two are Muslims and two Christians.
Ambivalence in North Sulawesi
Harsen Roy Tampomuri, a political consultant from North Sulawesi and founder of Indonesian Youth Updates, wasn’t surprised by Prabowo’s decision to launch his 2019 election campaign in Manado. Identity politics, Harsen says, can be a potential way to win the votes of North Sulawesi constituents.
It can be clearly seen from the narrative pushed by Prabowo’s camp: a call to “send the Minahasa son to the palace in Jakarta”. But a flaw in the campaign is that proposed policies tend to revolve around general issues, rather than specifically speaking to the interests of North Sulawesi voters.
According Harsen, two of Prabowo’s main campaign issues, corruption and the labour force, aren’t matters of primary concern for the people of North Sulawesi. Issues that are more likely to resonate with voters in Sulawesi include the geopolitical issue that places North Sulawesi strategically in the Asia-Pacific region; the issue of the welfare of copra (dried coconut kernels) farmers; clove production and the fisheries sector.
According to projections, the number of swing voters and undecided voters ahead of the 2019 presidential election is still significant
According to projections (link in Bahasa Indonesia), the number of swing voters and undecided voters ahead of the 2019 presidential election is still significant. This makes attracting the sympathy and loyalty of North Sulawesi voters a big deal for Prabowo’s campaign, but he also has to strike a balance between that and a more basic numbers game. While West Java has 33,270,845 voters, North Sulawesi only has 1,723,593 (link in Bahasa Indonesia), throwing up the question of the amount of time and energy Prabowo should devote to wooing voters from his hometown.
Another reason Prabowo might find it hard to balance gaining ground in places other parts of Indonesia with gaining traction in North Sulawesi is the difference in support bases. Throughout his campaign, reports have described Prabowo positioning himself as a pious Muslim—particularly in opposition to his rival Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has had to grapple with questions over the strength of his faith—and drawing on the support of more conservative or even hardline Muslim groups.
In North Sulawesi, where different ethnic and religious groups co-exist and mutual tolerance is prized, this could put off voters—especially if they interpret a vote for Prabowo as an indirect endorsement of the conservative Islamic groups that form a significant part of his base elsewhere. “This causes the issue of radicalism to be met with antipathy and affects the political choice or the political preferences of the people,” explains Harsen.