Mar 31, 2009
Indonesia's dark-horse candidate
By Katherine Demopoulos
JAKARTA - Career soldier Prabowo Subianto is still a dark-horse candidate among
the 38 different political parties jockeying for position ahead of next month's
legislative elections and a looming presidential race set for July.
A former son-in-law of dictator Suharto, and an alleged mastermind of the
violence and abuses that attended East Timor's break from Indonesia in 1999, he
is running a decidedly slick and well-financed campaign that appears to have
substantial grassroots resonance.
Although he is trailing incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and
frontrunner Megawati Sukarnoputri in the polls, Prabowo and his political
party's numbers could be pivotal to the formation of the next ruling coalition.
His Great Indonesia Movement party, or Gerindra, claims 11.2 million members.
The most recent polls forecast his party to win between 2.6% and 6.23% of the
legislative vote, sufficient popular support to cross the 2.5% threshold needed
for a party to assume legislative seats. Those figures could rise considering
between 9% and 50% of polled voters say they are still undecided.
Political analysts say that if Gerindra wins 6-7% of the legislature, it will
be a major player in the coalition building for presidential nominations. A
party or coalition needs 20% of seats of parliament or 25% of the popular votes
to put forward a presidential candidate.
Political analysts partially credit Prabowo's and Gerindra's early success to
the financial resources of his brother, Hashim Djojohadikusomo, who last year
was ranked by Globe Asia magazine as Indonesia's 14th richest person with a net
worth of just over US$1 billion.
He has helped to bankroll Prabowo's prime time media barrage, depicting glossy
panoramas of Indonesia, peopled with smiling children and hard-working farmers
and fishermen. Market research firm Nielson estimates Gerindra has garnered
more TV exposure than any other party by positioning its ads around Sikar, the
country's most popular soap opera and most viewed news bulletin.
His campaign has also been burnished by high-profile foreign advisors,
including US political communications expert Rob Allyn, who worked for outgoing
US president George W Bush's successful Texas governor campaign in 1994, and
reportedly a German scriptwriter involved in various popular Indonesian soap
"If you were a political actor in Indonesia, you'd have to be looking at him
closely and paying attention. There might be a hidden agenda. It might be quite
a legitimate tilt at the president or it might be a tilt for 2014, or getting
something else he wants," said Damien Kingsbury, associate professor at
Australia's Deakin University.
By spending much of his campaign time in rural villages, Prabowo has shown a
populist touch certain other top candidates have lacked. He has in particular
courted farmers and fishermen, demographic groups which make up the majority of
the rural population.
He has leveraged his position as chairman of the Indonesian Farmers'
Association, which claims 10 million members nationwide, to build up his
grassroots credentials and has lobbied the agriculture ministry on matters of
rural concern. He has also vowed to create 36 million new agricultural jobs and
double the average per capita income from its current $2,000 to $4,000 per
"I haven't seen any politician who has been so active and so persistent in
approaching the farmers down to the village across the archipelago," said
Aleksius Jemadu, professor at Pelita Harapan University, located on the
outskirts of Jakarta.
"He is a military strategist and he has a long-term perspective and he knows
what he can do to strengthen his popularity. He used to be known by the public
as a general, but knows he has to change his image to [that of] an effective
leader," he added.
Gerindra spokesman Haryanto Taslam echoes that assessment. He said in an
interview with Asia Times Online that during a recent village visit Prabowo
bought up palm oil stocks - at above the market price - from farmers who had
complained about falling prices.
He has also distributed fertilizer directly to farmers and tried to get cheaper
rice seed than that on offer from a government-appointed company, according to
In many ways, Haryanto is central to Prabowo's image-conscious electoral
strategy. As a former democracy activist, Haryanto was kidnapped and held for
40 days during the waning days of the Suharto regime. In his capacity as former
Kopassus commander, Prabowo has since personally apologized to him for his
detention, Haryanto says.
"The issue is not personal, but [it was] the system at that time," he said.
"Prabowo asked me to join him to fight together to fix Indonesia. And I wanted
to join because my political attitude is parallel with Prabowo's, wanting to
give the best for Indonesian people. I think there is no problem working
together with him."
Prabowo has in the past admitted responsibility for kidnapping pro-democracy
activists. Speaking recently to foreign journalists, Prabowo said of the
government's past political kidnapping policy: "Under one regime it is
preventative detention, then there is regime change and it is called
Such elliptical wordplay does little to assuage the activists who recall
Prabowo's controversial history. He stands most pointedly accused of organizing
thugs who terrorized pro-independence figures in East Timor, as well as
involvement in orchestrating the riots that targeted ethnic Chinese Indonesians
In a fully embedded democracy, "a candidate like him would not stand a
snowball's chance in hell," said Kingsbury. "Indonesia is on a reformist
political and economic path and Prabowo represents the opposite of that."
But for most of Indonesia's rural poor, activists' kidnappings and communal
riots are a world away. Their hardships have not eased in the decade of
democracy and among many there is nostalgia for Suharto's strong leadership and
policies that helped to uplift tens of millions out of poverty.
"Some people are harking back to the New Order. I think there has been some
re-swinging of the pendulum," said one Jakarta-based commentator, who requested
anonymity. "My fear [of Prabowo's candidacy] is a reversion to fascism."
Prabowo's campaign appeals to the masses through promises to reschedule foreign
debt payments and put the cash into education and healthcare. He has also taken
a nationalistic line in vowing to stop the sale of strategic state assets to
foreigners and review perceived unfavorable existing government contracts.
"The message is so concrete, so real, so relevant with the situation of his
audience, especially the farmers, the people at the grassroots ... He provides
a clear vision to solve all the real problems that they are facing in their
everyday life," added Pelita Harapan University's Jemadu.
"He's making some very basic appeals to popular nationalism and populist
economics," said Tim Lindsey at Melbourne University's Asian Law Center. He
warns that if some of Prabowo's proposed policies were actually implemented,
Indonesia would risk being cut off from international credit markets.
Some analysts fear that a Prabowo-led or influenced government could bid to
turn back the clock on Indonesian democracy. Prabowo has said he wants to
revert to the original form of Indonesia's constitution, which gives strong
powers to the executive and lacks checks and balances. Others, such as Lindsey,
believe Indonesia has moved past Suharto's and his former New Order regime's
"The time for New Order leftovers is running out. In 2014, it's pretty unlikely
that we'll be seeing the same array of politicians. We're witnessing a
generational shift," said Lindsey. "Young ones are not aware of Prabowo's
record, but it also works against them because the ideas they stand for
resonate with fewer people. Rather than being the re-emergence of New Order
politicians, perhaps this is their last hurrah."
Katherine Demopoulos is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She works as
a freelance reporter for the BBC and Guardian, and also writes extensively on
Asian energy markets.
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