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. 

Rural sensitivity
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 

Controversial past
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 1998. 

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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