Subject: Gen. Prabowo's Run for President

Far Eastern Economic Review

August 2008

Gen. Prabowo's Run for President

by Sahil K. Mahtani

Posted August 29, 2008

As if to illustrate the universality of poor taste, the former chief of the Indonesian Special Forces Gen. Prabowo Subianto recently decided to run for the Indonesian presidency. Since 1998, this son-in-law of late President Suharto has been dogged by accusations of rights abuses in East Timor and the Jakarta riots, for which a former U.S. ambassador has called him “the greatest violator of human rights in contemporary times by the Indonesian military”­no small distinction. Yet his presidential bid was announced over the summer and has been steadily ramping up publicity since.

High self-opinion is one reason Gen. Prabowo is running. Certainly this was evident in a recent video he released which involved a reproduction of Jacque-Louis David’s portrait of a horsed Napoleon crossing the Alps. Speaking with deliberate pace, he announced, “I have moved forward with my decision to run for the presidency because I feel it is a duty, as a patriot, it is a calling for me as a citizen . . . to be brave and ready, to be present.”

Patriotism aside, a reasonable observer may ask why else Gen. Prabowo is running. The most recent polls put him at 3%-4% of the vote, trailing incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri substantially. His similarly tainted colleague, former Armed Forces Chief Gen. Wiranto, has also chosen to run despite little chance of being elected.

“We may laugh at all these people who run, but this is their way of staying relevant, in the political elite,” said Dr. Marcus Mietzner, a lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra who spent a decade in Jakarta working on military reform issues. What come to mind are the examples of former Golkar Party Chairman Akbar Tandjung and ex-oil minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita, whose steep falls from grace made them vulnerable in 2001 to prosecutions for the so-called KKN crimes­corruption, collusion and nepotism. However, learning a quick lesson and wishing to avoid becoming sacrificial lambs for the Reformasi movement, they’ve returned to political life. Mr. Akbar is now bidding for the vice-presidency and Mr. Ginandjar is head of the DPD or the regional representatives council. “By running, they stay in the game, and basically out of prison,” Dr. Mietzner said.

There is little risk that the increased publicity of a campaign will reopen old sores. The Indonesian-language media has thus far given both candidates a free pass, with newspaper stories avoiding nearly all mention of past allegations in descriptions of the candidates. A recent report in the newspaper Kompas, for example, suggested that Gen. Prabowo’s campaign was not fulfilling its potential because­and this was it­it was short of advertising.

The larger cultural trend that makes such carelessness possible is widespread nostalgia for the Suharto era, which international observers often find difficult to understand. This was apparent earlier this year when Suharto was buried with full military honors, in a procession that attracted tens of thousands, while Britain’s Economist magazine labeled him a dictator who had “cheated justice” and created a “rotten regime.”

The fact is the standard of living for most Indonesians improved under the Suharto regime, before political turmoil and economic instability conspired to erode hard-gotten gains. Still, this admiration of Suharto is naïve in that it overlooks one main fact: The economic insecurity and political turmoil of the past 10 years clearly has its roots in his era. Nevertheless, Gen. Prabowo is benefiting from this spell of nostalgia.

Gen. Prabowo is not the only member of the old-guard to benefit from these trends. As others have put it, Indonesia’s parliamentary elections are quickly becoming a family affair, with the children of political leaders featuring prominently in party lists. Among them: Dave Laksono, son of House speaker Agung Laksono and a former director of the defunct airline Adam Air; Anindya Bakrie, son of Aburizal Bakrie, the country’s richest man and minister for people’s welfare; Solihin Kalla, son of Jusuf Kalla, Agus Hamzah, the son of former Vice President Hamzah Haz. This is not even mentioning some bigger names, like Puan Maharani, the daughter of former President Megawati, finally making her expected debut in politics.

It is for all these many and varied reasons­vanity, relevance, political climate, and company­that Gen. Prabowo will feel right at home in contesting the Indonesian presidency. His is the symbol of a tainted political elite that was supposed to be displaced back in 1998 by the Reformasi movement but has returned with nary a scar. The fall of Suharto and other events of 1998 are still held in the contemporary imagination as a popular uprising against a tainted dictatorship. Gen. Prabowo’s candidacy proves that it was merely a palace coup.

Mr. Sahil Mahtani is a Bartley Fellow at the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Back to August Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu