WRITE for ATol ADVERTISE MEDIA KIT GET ATol BY EMAIL ABOUT ATol CONTACT US
Asia Time Online - Daily News
             
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese



    Southeast Asia
     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 operas.

"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 year.

"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 Haryanto.

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 kidnapping."

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 legacy.

"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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Indonesia's Obama, Washington's Indonesia
(Mar 25,'09)

Raucous Indonesia rolls to the polls
(Mar 24,'09)

Democratic permutations in Indonesia
(Mar 21,'09)


1.
South Korea on alert

2. Obama's Afghan Spaghetti Western

3. Economic dirty bomb goes off in New York

4. Accidents can happen

5. Total fraud

6. Ghosts of USís unilateralist past rise

7. Goldplay

8. Liquid war: Welcome to Pipelineistan

9. Japan takes aim

10. Presidents looking for answers

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 29, 2009)

asia dive site

Asia Dive Site
 
 



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110