Some have claimed it would be the biggest threat to Indonesian democracy. But would a Prabowo Subianto presidential win in Indonesia’s 9 July elections be all that bad?
As the race for the palace heats up, this is a new meme starting to surface. Perhaps, the former Kopassus (Special Forces) general and Suharto son-in-law might be easier to deal with, more likely to knock Indonesia into shape, than his rival for the presidency, the Jakarta governor Joko Widodo or “Jokowi”.
Among Westerners who’ve met them both, Prabowo is someone who “thinks like us” and talks like a Westerner, thanks to his education in Singapore, Britain and other places during his economist father’s exile between 1958 and 1965 for joining a failed rebellion.
As a leading army general in Suharto’s last decade, Prabowo was a go-to figure for Western countries including Australia: placating them about the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, rescuing hostages taken by separatists in Papua, getting understandings with the president.
Santa Cruz or even the earlier reprisal executions at Kraras have not been conclusively pinned on him. If he ran vicious local militias in Timor and Papua, wasn’t that what he’d been trained to do in US Army counter-insurgency schools, and applied by the US Army itself in Iraq?
As for student activists abducted and tortured by a Kopassus team during the anti-Suharto protests of 1998, his subordinates confessed it was all their own initiative; Prabowo himself nobly took “command responsibility” and accepted an honourable discharge from the military. Indeed, some of the victims are now working with Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement.
And as for the threats he made against ethnic Chinese in 1997-98 over capital flight during the Asian financial crisis, and his courting of Islamists, why, Prabowo is promising to open a church in Bogor blocked by local Muslim groups. His billionaire brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo has become a born-again Christian, just like many Chinese-Indonesians.
Almost uniquely among contenders, Prabowo’s long march towards the current presidential campaign, culminating in a popular vote on 9 July, has been peppered with thoughtful, statistic-laden speeches about how Indonesia needs to ramp up its food and energy production to cope with its growing population, spread wealth beyond Jakarta, and infuse stronger government through the corruption-prone regions.
Like Jokowi, he has made strident statements on the hustings about limiting foreign control of the economy and boosting self-sufficiency in food. But everyone knows that’s just campaign rhetoric. Isn’t Prabowo close buddies with Jim Bob Moffett, the Elvis-impersonating chairman of Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, the biggest foreign investor of them all?
After 10 years of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, widely perceived as timid and fence-sitting, many yearn for a stronger, more decisive presidency. Though the constitutional weakness of the office in the post-Suharto era will continue, notably through the lack of a US-style veto over legislation, some see Prabowo’s leadership aura compensating for that.
By contrast, what do we know about Jokowi?
With less than two years in charge of the sprawling capital; before that a successful enough career as small businessman and mayor of a medium-sized Javanese city; good beginnings in Jakarta with a universal health scheme and start of a long-postponed metro; but an image built on approachability and modesty rather than any solid achievement in solving the urban nightmare, and so far only vague ideas for the presidency.
The inclinations of his party’s matriarch, Megawati Sukarnoputri, are just as centrist and security-minded as Prabowo’s, and she has foisted onto Jokowi’s campaign team some former army-intelligence generals and business cronies with sinister reputations to match.
Against this argument, however, Indonesians and foreign analysts are factoring in the Prabowo personality. Notoriously hot-tempered, he is said to have a full-time “anger manager” on his personal staff, but even this has not stopped reports of physical assaults on underlings. His aura is not just charisma; it’s fear.
In 1983, Prabowo and his Kopassus unit almost arrested the army’s commander and other top generals for an alleged plot against Suharto, but were stopped and disarmed by their Kopassus seniors. One widely-respected Indonesian analyst privately voices fears that as president, Prabowo could be intemperate enough to start conflicts with neighbouring countries, such as with Malaysia over disputed maritime areas.
And according to an alleged copy of the military “honour board” decision that cashiered Prabowo in 1998, now circulating on the Internet, Prabowo had known about the student abductions and assured his subordinates their actions were known and condoned at the top military level, when in fact the knowledge stopped with him.
Prabowo’s legal advisors counter that nonetheless, he received an honourable discharge from the army. But this only compounds another problem if he were to become president. The honour board was not a court martial, so Prabowo has not faced a legal trial over the abductions.
This means there is no double jeopardy protection under the UN Convention Against Torture, which establishes universal jurisdiction and perhaps an obligation to prosecute. America and Australia are among 155 signatories, and Prabowo is persona non grata in the United States because of this treaty.
This legal risk, plus all the other human rights questions around him, makes the prospect of Prabowo as president a nightmare for governments friendly to Indonesia.
But with his can-do economic message, the money and organisation of the Golkar party now behind him, and three Islamic parties in his coalition, Prabowo could give Jokowi a close run.
If the Indonesian people choose him, the world will wear it, just as they’ve done with India’s contentious new prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Hamish Mcdonald is Journalist in Residence at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. He has authored several books on Indonesia, the latest, Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century, is available through Black Inc.