Indonesia's next president?


JAKARTA — The streets of Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, have been transformed by political propaganda.

Party flags, billboards and banners line the roadways and hoards of partisans are beginning to hit the road, hanging from bus windows and roofs, singing their support into bullhorns.

With 38 political parties putting up about 12,000 candidates to contest 560 seats for the parliamentary election April 9, parties are working overtime to get noticed. The ultimate goal is to take 25 percent of the popular vote or 20 percent of the seats in Parliament, which would qualify a party to nominate a candidate for July’s presidential election.

And nobody is doing a better job at getting noticed than Prabowo Subianto, a controversial ex-general and former son-in-law of Indonesia’s longtime authoritarian ruler, Suharto, who has recast himself as a champion of the country’s impoverished millions.

The very fact that Subianto has designs on the presidency is cause to take notice. During this, Indonesia’s first decade of democracy, he has stayed mostly out of the public eye, his name only gracing news stories about Suharto-era human rights abuses.

Human rights groups have long held Subianto responsible for abducting student activists during the upheaval of the late 1990s, as well as atrocities committed in East Timor, though he has never stood trial.

He was forced to resign his post as head of Indonesia’s Special Forces amid the kidnapping controversy in 1998, though he has always maintained he hadn’t exceeded his orders.

“It is like he is carrying a giant iron ball around his neck wherever he goes,” said Mohammad Qodari, an Indonesian political analyst and pollster.

Adding to the intrigue, Prabowo appointed as deputy campaign manager Muchdi Purwopranjono, a former intelligence chief who in January was controversially acquitted for ordering the 2004 murder of Munir Said Thalib, a celebrated Indonesian human rights lawyer.

Yet Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, which is only one year old, is already counted among the top political parties contesting this year’s elections. The party chairman, Suhardi, claims more than 13 million members, which would make it one of the biggest political parties in Indonesia.

Qodari said such numbers are difficult to confirm but admitted that Gerindra could garner 7 percent or more of the vote come Election Day, far short of the number needed to run a presidential candidate, but enough to lead a coalition of smaller parties that could nominate Subianto for the July polls.

“There is one thing I can say about Prabowo,” Qodari said. “He is very serious about becoming president.”

This reinvention of Prabowo Subianto — or historical rewrite, as some local papers have suggested — is costing millions of dollars. Backed by his billionaire brother, Subianto started running television ads almost a year ago. They feature sweeping scenes of farmers toiling away amid rolling, terraced rice paddies, cut with various nationalist symbols and Prabowo himself reaching out symbolically to their cause.

Subianto, however, first began this reinvention in 2004, after he failed to be nominated as a presidential candidate by the Golkar Party, Suharto’s old political vehicle. Instead, he became chairman of the Indonesian Farmers Association, where he has been consolidating support ever since.

More recently, he also has taken on the press, though with much less success.

During an impressive display of political spin in February, Subianto confidently confronted a room full of foreign correspondents who grilled him on his human rights record.

A charming Subianto told the amazed group that he takes “full responsibility” for his past actions, adding that in East Timor he had been “serving his country” and that the kidnappings were “preventative detentions.”

The press didn’t much take to his charm, but a quarter of Indonesian voters this year are too young to remember the Suharto-era abuses and the role Prabowo Subianto played. And earlier this month he picked up the tacit support of several important Islamic leaders, including that of Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president who once headed the Nahdatul Ulama, a 40 million member Islamic organization. Wahid’s daughter, an important political player herself, is campaigning for Subianto in East Java.

“He is a great hero, he is clever, a strong decision maker. He is a complete person and people love him,” Suhardi, Gerindra’s chairman, said. “People keep looking at the past, which is important. But it is also important to look at the future, the future of our nation, and that is what Prabowo is doing.”

It might seem impossible for a new political party led by a controversial ex-general to have any serious chance at the presidency in a country that is fiercely proud of the democratic reforms made over the last decade.

But one only has to look to the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is also an ex-general brought up under Suharto and whose unknown Democratic Party shot to the top of the polls in 2004. After forming a coalition, Yudhoyono won the presidency.

“In the middle of last year, Gerindra polled at practically zero percent. Then he spent millions in advertising and his party is now a major player. The campaign has been very effective, we’ll see if it’s effective enough,” Qodari said.

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