Wooing Indonesia with a strongman style

Prabowo Subianto, a former general, is banking on Indonesian voters’ desire for a decisive leader.

Prabowo Subianto has made big gains in opinion polls in recent months [AP]

He left Indonesia under a cloud of controversy in 1998 but now Prabowo Subianto, a former lieutenant general and special forces commander, has staged an impressive political comeback.

Nominated for president by Gerindra, a party he created, Prabowo has made big gains in opinion polls in the past month against his opponent, Jakarta governor Joko Widodo. Although he was trailing by 30 percentage points, he has now caught up almost completely.

The fiery politician has been described by Marcus Mietzner, a political scientist at Australian National University, as having a “populist, anti-foreign, and testosterone-driven worldview”, and of giving “the impression of a man not only willing but desperately determined to rule”. Depending on whom you ask, Prabowo would make either a strong, effective leader or be dangerously authoritarian. Prabowo has expressed support for returning to Indonesia’s 1945 constitution, which would likely entail greater presidential powers.

Prabowo is a powerful, charismatic speaker with a penchant for the dramatic – for instance, arriving at a rally by helicopter a few weeks ago, and then riding into the arena on a thoroughbred horse.

He has advocated nationalistic economic policies and a fight against corruption. “Our sources of wealth are controlled by foreign hands, foreign companies, so the wealth flows out from the country… Indonesia’s wealth should be controlled by our country,” he said in the second presidential debate on June 15.

“My gut feeling is Prabowo supports a more active foreign policy than Jokowi,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, an analyst and lecturer at Indonesian National Defence University, adding that he thinks “there will be more nationalism” if the former military man is elected.

Climbing the military ranks

Prabowo’s father came from a wealthy family, and served as a finance minister under Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president; and as a trade minister under his successor, Suharto.

Prabowo graduated from Indonesia’s National Military Academy as valedictorian, and shortly thereafter became commander of a platoon in the restive province of East Timor, which has since become an independent country.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Prabowo Subianto: ‘The people are fed up’

In 1983, Prabowo married Siti Hediati Hariyadi, the daughter of Suharto. They divorced in 2001.

Prabowo continued to move up the ranks, eventually becoming the head of Kopassus, Indonesia’s special forces, in 1995. His military career has been the focus of much controversy, and he has been accused of having links to human rights abuses in East Timor and West Papua.

Prabowo has dismissed these charges, claiming that “this whispering campaign is most probably backed by an old guard of corrupt Indonesian politicians, frightened of a popular movement that appeals to the aspirations of millions of young people and the underprivileged poor”.

In 1998, as unrest spread across Indonesia following an economic collapse, soldiers led by Prabowo abducted nine pro-democracy protesters. This led a military council to dismiss him from the armed forces, and it is believed that Prabowo – who has admitted his involvement in some of the abductions – was refused a visa to enter the US in 2000 as a result.

“When you serve as a soldier in the highest echelons, you will always be subject to accusations, charges, defamation of character; that’s the risk of your profession,” Prabowo told Al Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa last year in response to questions about his human rights record. As for his US entry ban, he quipped: “Nelson Mandela was blacklisted from the United States at one time. Am I not in good company?”

After his dismissal from the armed forces, Prabowo moved to Jordan – a country ruled by his friend King Abdullah II, a former special forces commander himself – and launched a successful business career. In 2008, Prabowo formed a new political party, Gerindra, short for “Great Indonesia Movement Party”. He ran for vice president in 2009 as part of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s presidential ticket, but they lost, receiving just over one-quarter of the vote.

Gerindra performed better than expected in parliamentary elections this April, winning almost 12 percent of the vote.

A big coalition

Prabowo’s presidential bid has drawn support from several major parties, including Golkar – once Suharto’s political vehicle – and three Islamist parties, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP). Combined with Gerindra’s share of the vote, these parties won just under half the vote in April’s parliamentary elections.

It doesn’t hurt Prabowo’s presidential chances that his brother, business tycoon Hashim Djojohadikusomo, was estimated by Forbes to be worth $700m in 2013. Prabowo’s campaign has been funded partly by his brother, said Edward Aspinall, a professor of politics at Australian National University, who added that “most of the big money is going to Prabowo at this time”.

Prabowo’s running mate, Hatta Rajasa, heads the National Mandate Party. He has served as a transportation and economy minister, and is also the father-in-law of current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son.

Source: Al Jazeera