Strange as it may seem, someone asked at a recent Indonesian Communion of Churches gathering whether opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto would form an Islamic caliphate if he defeats incumbent Joko Widodo at April’s election.

The question was directed at Prabowo’s younger brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who as a Protestant Christian has often had to defend the Muslim-raised candidate’s long-standing marriage of convenience with the sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS).

“I will tell you ma’am, what is the guarantee that Prabowo will not form a caliphate? I am that guarantee,“ the 64-year-old businessman was quoted as responding. “My Catholic older sister and brother-in-law, they are also guarantors.”

For all of Muslim majority Indonesia’s constitutional status as a secular state, religion remains an omnipresent issue in political life, more so for a family that straddles the line between the two faiths.

Elder sister Bianti, 70, her husband, ex-central bank governor Soedradjat Djiwandono, 80, and Bianti’s younger sister, Yani, 68, also a Christian, are working for Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), which could well finish runner-up in the legislative elections to be held on the same day.

Soedradjat, whose son, Tommy Djiwandono, 46, is Gerindra’s treasurer, told Christian voters in West Timor in 2014: “Some say that because Muslim parties support Prabowo it will be dangerous for religious minorities. I say it is impossible for Prabowo to discriminate against certain religions because he is from a very pluralist family.”

Hashim Djojohadikusumo (R), brother, wealthy businessman and adviser of Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in a file photo. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

If nothing else, Prabowo, 67, has always been a pragmatist. Back in 1997-1998, he cozied up to so-called “green” generals and conservative Muslim leaders in his power struggle with armed forces commander General Wiranto before and after president Suharto’s resignation.

In fact, it got to a point where Hashim angrily asked journalists why they were characterizing Prabowo, the then Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) chief, as an Islamic radical when the family matriarch and the rest of his blue blood family had been brought up Christian.

Still, those same allies helped in Prabowo’s political comeback when he returned from self-exile in Jordan, where he lived for three years after being cashiered from the military in the turbulent aftermath of Suharto’s fall in 1998.

When he failed in a bid to win the presidential nomination for the resurgent Golkar Party in 2004, Prabowo and his wealthy brother formed Gerindra, which won 4.46% of the national vote at its first attempt five years later and has since become the country’s third-ranked party.

In 2013, Prabowo’s early alliance with the country’s two sharia-based parties, PKS and the United Development Party (PPP), once again found Hashim having to reassure the Christian clergy that his brother could control their more extremist followers.

After all, Hashim was part of a Jakarta congregation of the Indonesian Christian Church Yasmin, whose Bogor church was sealed by municipal leaders in 2010 and had remained shut in defiance of a Supreme Court order. If and when Prabowo became president, he vowed, the church would be reopened.

Prabowo also promised not to choose a running mate from either PKS or PPP for the 2014 presidential election, eventually settling for former chief economic minister Hatta Rajasa when his National Mandate Party (PAN) belatedly joined the opposition after failing to seal a deal with Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P).

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets his supporters after registering his candidacy for 2019 elections in front of General Elections Commission (KPU) office, Jakarta, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho
Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto after registering his candidacy for 2019 elections, Jakarta, August 10, 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/Eko Siswono Toyudho

Five years later, nothing has changed. PKS remains an opposition partner, but again Prabowo overlooked party chairman Sohibul Iman and eight other PKS nominees in his choice of businessman Sandiaga Uno as his vice presidential candidate.

“PKS really has nowhere to go,” says one political analyst, noting nationalist PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri’s refusal to have the party in Widodo’s ruling coalition. “Prabowo has got them where he wants them. They are stuck to him by default.”

Prabowo is the odd man out in his family because a Christian can likely never hope to be president of Muslim majority Indonesia, where even a Christian-Chinese Jakarta governor found the job too hot to handle after being accused of blasphemy and other Christian politicians struggle to attract votes in Muslim areas.

Prabowo’s late father, Soemitro Djojohadikusumo, a finance, trade or research minister in five Sukarno and Suharto Cabinets, was a Muslim and it always seemed to be the grand plan to have his ambitious elder son use his military career as a springboard to the country’s highest political office.

But Soemitro’s wife, Dora Marie Sigar, a surgical nursing student whom he met and married while studying in post-war Europe, was a Protestant from North Sulawesi, one of the few Indonesian provinces where Christians remain an overwhelming majority.

A Christian upbringing may have been pre-ordained anyway for the rest of a family which lived in exile in Europe between 1958 and 1967 after Soemitro, a member of the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI), became embroiled in the so-called Permesta Rebellion against the Sukarno government.

After the furor in 2017 over the fall of Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, in which Prabowo and his Islamic allies backed rival candidate Anies Baswedan, he has focused his presidential campaign on the economy and studiously avoided attacking Widodo on religious grounds, presumably making it easier for his siblings to rally around in support.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays during Nuzulul Quran event at Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum
Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace, Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Most Indonesian observers believe that for all the claims that he is un-Islamic, Widodo, a native of rural Java, is in fact more devout than his rival. At Prabowo’s birthday celebration last year, amused guests heard him telling an invited Muslim cleric to speed up the pre-dinner consecration because everyone was hungry.

Widodo’s critics also accuse him of being a closet communist, which now seems strange after Hashim told the Communion of Churches: “We accept support from anyone except the devil. We would even accept support from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) as long as Prabowo is not led to the hammer and sickle.”

Prabowo’s only child, Didit Hediprasetyo, a 34-year-old son from his former wife, Titiek Suharto, one of the late president’s three daughters, works as a fashion designer in Paris and has shown no interest in following his father into politics.

Hashim’s son, Aryo Djojohadikusumo, 35, and daughter Rahayu Saraswati, 33, are both members of the current Parliament, as is Bianti’s son, Budisatrio Djiwandono, 38, who took over the East Kalimantan seat of an elected Gerindra parliamentarian when he died in 2017 and is standing in the same electorate this time. All are Christians.

Aryo is not running this time, but Rahayu is moving from Central Java to the affluent South Jakarta electorate to pursue a promising political career. As one friend describes the one-time actress: “She is well-spoken, thoughtful, and willing to take up an issue that goes against populist bullshit.”

The Djojohadikusumos have not always been as harmonious as they like to advertise. During the 1997-98 financial crisis, Soedradjat, the central bank governor, caused a sharp rift in the family by closing 16 privately owned banks, including one partly owned by Hashim, at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.

But as the April elections approach, they do appear to be as close as an Indonesian political family can get to a genuine team. And if Prabowo falls short again in this year’s presidential race, Gerindra may still turn out to be a major force going into the next presidential and legislative campaign in 2024.

That, in the long run, could become the family’s enduring legacy.