The last time I saw Prabowo Subianto was in 1997 in a home he shared with his wife, the daughter of Suharto, Indonesia’s longest serving leader. He was a brash, good-looking general, brimming with confidence. Tipped as a possible successor to Suharto, he was one of the few in Suharto’s inner circle comfortable with English and the West.
He was explaining the sense of order with which he viewed the world. The strong cared for the weak, and a true leader had wahyu, meaning “divine revelation”, creating order in the universe.
Both the leaders he knew, Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, and the man who ousted him, Suharto, had wahyu, tapping the power of ancient Javanese myths. The royal sultans of Solo were named Pakubuwono, which literally translated, means “the nail of the universe”.
All this was turned upside down in May 1998, in riots which ended Suharto’s 32-year rule and ushered in Indonesia’s democracy and reformasi.
It also brought a demand for accountability: Prabowo left the military in disgrace, under a cloud for human rights violations.
Sixteen years later, I entered his sprawling home in Bogor on the night before Indonesia’s third direct presidential elections.
Still expansive and confident to the edge of arrogance, it’s clear Prabowo is used to leading. He believes he has wahyu, and despite the curve balls fortune has thrown his way, he has stayed the course and is now within reach of his goal – Indonesia’s presidency.
This is the third time he’s tried for the top post. In 2004, the first time Indonesians directly elected their leader, he ran. And lost dismally. In 2008, he set up his own political party, but failed to qualify to run for president so he ran for vice president. And again, he lost.
He has been both a favoured son of Jakarta’s political elite and been ostracised by the same elite: His father was a renowned economist who served in the cabinets of both Sukarno and Suharto; his brother is estimated by Fortune to have a net worth of $700m in 2013.
“Indonesia’s elite avoid facing hard truths,” he said, describing the state of the economy and why he chose to run for president.
“Aren’t you a member of the elite?” I asked.
“Sixteen years I’m out of power. I fight the elite,” he retorted. “I’m an outsider. They call me a maverick.”
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It’s untenable, he said, that Indonesia has no national savings left.
“It’s been 30 years in a row that we’ve had surplus of reserves, but we lost surplus two years ago. I’m just telling the truth,” said Prabowo. Then he turned, as if addressing a larger group of his countrymen: “Hey, ladies and gentlemen, you have nothing. You have no savings. Your country’s rich, but you’re poor.”
When Prabowo speaks like this, it alarms foreign investors because some think he’s pushing to nationalise industries. Not so, says his spokesman, Sandiaga Uno, one of Indonesia’s richest, and an advocate for young entrepreneurs.
What he wants is to move higher up the value chain: Instead of just exporting cacao, he wants to make the chocolates and build world-renowned brands such as Godiva. The same can be said for every industry, including natural resources such as mining.
He vows to fight against corruption – “what the West calls pork barrel politics”. He talked about a population explosion: “Five million new mouths every year. By next year, there are 10 million new Indonesians!”
“If we don’t address the poor, the only outcome is upheaval, civil war and revolution,” he said emphatically.
He began quoting books, including Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die.
“How would you define yourself?” I asked.
“My own self-image or self-perception?” he answered. “Have you ever read Paolo Coelho? Have you ever read The Warrior of the Light? I find myself in that book. If you want to understand me, then you have to read that book.”
It’s a parable about good and evil. It’s described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a self-help manual with fictional overtones”, full of sayings and aphorisms from people such as Lao Tzu, Gandhi and Jesus.
“I was brought up a warrior,” continued Prabowo. “To defend truth; to defend the weak; to defend the people; to uphold righteousness; to fight evil. Those are the values that have been taught to me. In the end, we have to be willing to suffer and to sacrifice our lives.”
How far will Prabowo go in his quest for the presidency?
That’s a key question today as Indonesia’s 250 million people are faced with two candidates, Prabowo and his rival, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, both claiming victory in last week’s elections.
There’s much at stake: the country with the world’s largest Muslim population proves Islam and democracy goes hand-in-hand; the fourth most populous country globally is the economic lynchpin of Southeast Asia.
The more credible quick counts have Joko, seen as a man of the people, winning 53 percent vs 47 percent, but Prabowo claims 16 counts have him as the victor.
By any count, Prabowo has the support of nearly 50 percent of about 140 million voters. That alone is a win for a man who’s had such a fall from grace.
Both candidates say they will abide by official results expected on July 22. The question now is whether a man who believes he is destined to lead and who has worked tenaciously for his goal can concede defeat.
He certainly hasn’t in the past.
Maria A Ressa was CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief from 1995-2005. She’s the author of Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.
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