Indonesia beats path out of Suharto era
By John Aglionby in Yogyakarta
Published: March 25 2009 17:13 | Last updated: March 25 2009 17:13
When Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Great Indonesia Movement party, appeared
at a campaign rally in the central Java city of Yogyakarta last week, his
articulate stump speech was all about the need for regime change.
With a huge banner behind him exhorting voters to "Restore Indonesia as Asia's
tiger", he spoke for almost half an hour about how the "little people" had been
neglected since the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998 and that it was time
for strong new leadership.
Mr Prabowo's problem is that while his party, known as Gerindra, is only a year
old, he is anything but a fresh face. He was a son-in-law of Suharto and under
his rule became one of the youngest lieutenant generals in Indonesian history.
He also faces a political rival, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who appears set to
be re-elected to a further term as president - Mr Yudhoyono and his Democrat
party are both well ahead in polls for the legislative election to be held on
April 9 ahead of the presidential contest.
The hats Mr Prabowo distributed at the rally were emblazoned with the three
stars of a general to remind voters of his background. His presidential
campaign is financed by Hashim Djojohadikusumo, his billionaire brother, who
was also close to the Suharto family.
Mr Prabowo's emergence, analysts say, demonstrates the enduring power of the
Suharto-era oligarchy in spite of the dictator's death last year. "The theme of
the election for many people is, 'You again? You again?'" said Budi Santoso, an
analyst based in Yogyakarta.
All the main candidates in the July presidential election made their names
under Suharto. Mr Yudhoyono was a general and Wiranto, who ran unsuccessfully
in 2004, was defence minister and armed forces chief during East Timor's bloody
secession in 1999.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, Mr Yudhoyono's predecessor, is also making another run.
The daughter of Indonesia's founding president, she led one of the two
opposition parties Suharto allowed to operate within tight controls.
Moreover, the largest party in parliament is still Golkar, the political
machine created by Suharto, though Mr Yudhoyono's Democrat party appears set to
overtake it in the legislative election.
Analysts believe it is likely to be at least a further decade before the old
order cedes the centre stage.
"The most amazing thing about Indonesian politics is the continuity of the
Suharto oligarchy and their ability to adapt. They're great survivors," says
Jeffrey Winters, a long-time Indonesia watcher at Northwestern University in
The oligarchy's grip on power should not surprise anyone, says Amin Abdullah,
head of the State Islamic University in Yogyakarta.
'The theme of the election for many people is, "You again? You again?"'
Budi Santoso, analyst based in Yogyakarta
"Under Suharto, leaders couldn't emerge except from the military or a tiny
elite, so we have a lost generation of civilian leadership," he says.
Indonesia's path out of the shadow of the Suharto-era is emerging, however. A
constitutional court ruling this year means voters will elect individual
legislators in the upcoming election; previously, voters endorsed party tickets
and then party officials allocated the seats based on won.
"This decision is the most powerful empowerment of the voters in 60 years of
Indonesian electoral history," says Kevin Evans, an Australian analyst.
Mr Evans predicts that more than half of the 560 seats in parliament will be
filled by new faces.
The oligarchy's power is also eroding through the direct election of leaders at
all levels of government. The incumbent re-election rate is about 60 per cent,
low by global standards and a manifestation of increasing public demand for
Kevin O'Rourke, an analyst in Jakarta, believes Indonesia's 33 popularly
elected governors will play an increasingly prominent role in national politics.
"The rules of the system have changed," says Mr O'Rourke. "The game used to be
to seek rents and money to pay the regional legislature to re-elect you. Now
it's all about performance."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009