Profile: Wiranto

It was a fleeting moment during a busy press conference but the journalist’s Freudian slip, a query about “Wiharto”, spoke volumes about where a leading presidential candidate’s loyalties may lie.

Wiranto (L) was former president Suharto's protege
Wiranto (L) was former president Suharto's protege

The candidate is retired four-star general Wiranto, and the object of his allegiance is ousted strongman Suharto. That 15-year relationship between the often ruthless, unapologetic former president and his young protege is both Wiranto’s greatest asset and an anchor-chain around his waist.

“My family agrees we need someone strong like Suharto before, to unify the country, to improve security,” says 25-year-old first-time voter Miftahur Rahman, an economics student at the University of Indonesia.

“Wiranto has shown his good character by being respectful to Suharto but I’m still not clear if I should vote for him.

“Suharto also did many bad things and his family are the corruption professionals.”

More than 150 million Indonesians are eligible to vote in the country’s inaugural presidential elections on Monday. Should none of the five presidential tickets secure more than 50% of the vote, a second round runoff between the two top finishers will be held on 20 September.


There is evidence that “Wiharto” is heading for an early defeat, sunk by perceptions he is a front-man for Suharto cronies, a bitter power struggle within his own party and his alleged involvement in human rights abuses at home and abroad.

Poll results released on Friday show Wiranto, 57, lagging in third place with roughly 15% of the decided vote, five percentage points behind incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, once Wiranto’s subordinate, is threatening to run away with these elections with nearly 44% of the decided vote, according to the Indonesian Election Institute’s results.

Early career

The son of a school teacher in the royal city of Yogyakarta in Central Java, Wiranto graduated from military academy in 1968.

Former President Suharto has so far avoided prosecution

Former President Suharto has
so far avoided prosecution

Suharto plucked the mid-ranking officer from relative obscurity, appointing him as his personal adjunct in 1989.

The pair became personally close, perhaps because the old general’s own children had eschewed military careers to manage the family’s increasingly lucrative business interests.

The young officer travelled on vacation with the president’s family and was a fixture at Suharto’s home in the ritzy neighbourhood known as Cendana (Sandalwood).

Photographs from that era show the pair playing golf together at the exclusive Rancamaya course outside Jakarta or, more famously, with Wiranto bent forward so that his mentor could use his back to sign a document.

Going it alone

Though he left Suharto’s side in 1993 to return to active service, his friend’s fingerprints are all over Wiranto’s subsequent rise through the ranks.

Student protest against former generals running in the election

Student protest against former
generals running in the election

In five short years, he moved from being a ceremonial one-star general working under the country’s current intelligence chief, to Suharto’s choice as chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) just two months before his regime collapsed in the face of mass demonstrations by so-called pro-Reformasi activists.

While former Suharto loyalists abandoned the regime or attempted to reinvent themselves as “reformists”, Wiranto stuck by his side, insisting the army would protect the aging leader against the public lynching many were demanding.

To this day, Suharto, 82, has managed to elude justice. In 2000, a near $600 million corruption case was dropped when his lawyers and doctors managed to convince the courts that a series of strokes had left him brain damaged and unable to recall the details of his more than 30-year rule.

Mixed feelings

Part of Wiranto’s problem is that Indonesians have yet to sort out their feelings about Suharto. During 32 years, he turned the country from a poverty-stricken economic backwater into one of Asia’s great Cold war success stories.

“Suharto also did
many bad things and
his family are the corruption professionals”

Miftahur Rahman,
first-time voter, 25

In the process, reports German-based Transparency International, Suharto and his extended family accumulated an estimated $40 billion, eclipsing the personal fortunes amassed by such figures as Marcos, Mabutu and Duvalier.

In 1999, Wiranto donned the gold-rimmed glasses and business suit of a well-connected Javanese businessman to join the cabinet of president Abdurrahman Wahid. The relationship foundered and by the spring of 2001 Wiranto was out of a job.

The candidate has tried to put some distance between himself and the Cendana insiders this election campaign, emphasising the role he claims to have played stabilising the country in the months following Suharto’s resignation.

Party politics

Even if he can escape the old man’s shadows, he faces an uphill battle within the former ruling party, Golkar.

Golkar leader Akbar Tanjung (L) may be undermining Wiranto

Golkar leader Akbar Tanjung
(L) may be undermining Wiranto

A political neophyte, Wiranto managed to wrest the position as presidential candidate from party chairman Akbar Tanjung in April.

Fresh from a successful appeal against a conviction on corruption charges, Tanjung had expected to win handily the party’s nod as presidential candidate.

Instead, the outgoing parliamentary speaker was beaten by Wiranto in the second round.

The result, says Northwestern University professor Jeffery Winters, is that Wiranto has struggled to gain the support and fundraising prowess of entrenched Tanjung loyalists within the formidable Golkar party machine.

“Akbar Tanjung has been showing up at Wiranto rallies, playing the role of a good, loyal party man, but all the indications are that behind the scenes he’s actively subverting the party’s candidate or just sitting on his hands,” says Winters.

“He’s got a lot to handle all at once. If he doesn’t make it into the second round he’s finished. So in that sense, the results of the elections will decide the results of this struggle within the party.”

Foreign forces

Wiranto has not escaped scandal during his rise to the top. He is linked to several high profile human rights cases, including the suspected involvement of security forces in widespread rioting that presaged Suharto’s departure, leaving in excess of 1500 people dead in Jakarta.

He is also facing pressure from abroad. Two months ago, a judge in the former Indonesian province of East Timor issued a warrant for his arrest.

Wiranto, then chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), is accused of being complicit in the scorched earth policy conducted by the army and its supporters there after residents of the former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia three decades ago, opted for independence in a UN-sponsored ballot in 1999.

While few Indonesians sympathise with the East Timorese, there is a fear Wiranto could be held for trial in a third country if a sympathetic judge there were to honour the warrant.

“Personally, I believe he should be held accountable for what happened in East Timor,” said Bantarto Bandoro, editor of the Indonesia Quarterly, published by the Centre for Security and International Studies.

“If he can’t control the situation, then he should be held responsible for the chaos there.”

As the clock ticks down to election day it is increasingly apparent the one-time favourite of Indonesia’s political elite is no longer the master of his own destiny.

Source : Al Jazeera

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