Prabowo supporters at a campaign. Photo by AFP.

Prabowo supporters at a campaign. Photo by AFP.

As Prabowo Subianto closes the gap in Indonesia’s two-horse presidential race, David Bourchier examines what his presidency might look like.

Until very recently the prospect that disgraced general Prabowo Subianto could take over the reins of power in Indonesia was routinely greeted with nervous laughter and expressions of ‘heaven forbid!’

All eyes were on ‘Jokowi’ (Joko Widodo), the populist former mayor of Solo who has enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls for the past two years.

With Indonesia’s presidential elections to be held on 9 July and the field of candidates reduced to two, the outlook has changed. Polls indicate there is an increasing chance that Prabowo, Soeharto’s former son-in-law, will take over from SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono). It is time to take him seriously.

Prabowo is not a democrat but a strongman. Former defence minister Juwono Sudharsono has described him as a Putin in the making. He played no part in the reforms that have transformed Indonesia over the past 15 years from a dictatorship to the world’s third largest democracy. On the contrary, as a former commander of Indonesia’s special forces, he was at the heart of the military machinery which helped suppress dissent and keep Soeharto in power for over three decades.

As a commando, Prabowo served several terms in East Timor where he earned a reputation for brutality and for acting without the permission of his immediate superiors. He was able to do this because he belonged to one of the most privileged and accomplished families in Indonesia – his father had been one of Indonesia’s most influential economists – and because of his close relationship with President Soeharto, especially after marrying his daughter Titiek Hediati in 1983.

Found guilty of acting without orders in kidnapping democracy activists in 1997, Prabowo was discharged from the army and three years in exile in Jordan under the protection of his friend Prince (later King) Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein.

On his return to Indonesia, Prabowo – like other Soeharto era cronies – adapted quickly to the new multiparty democracy. With the financial backing of his billionaire brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo tied and failed to be nominated as a presidential candidate for the establishment party Golkar. He later founded the ultra-nationalist Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) which contested the 2009 elections on a populist platform that included advocating for the rights of farmers, inviting comparisons with Thailand’s populist tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra.

Gerindra did poorly in 2009, but with the help of saturation advertising on TV and a social media onslaught, won nearly 12 per cent in the general elections of April 2014, making it the third largest party in Indonesia’s kaleidoscopic parliament. In the horse trading that followed, the conservative Golkar and four Islamic parties swung their support behind Prabowo’s presidential bid, leaving his opponent Jokowi with the support of a slim coalition of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s election winning PDI-P and a smattering of mainly secular pluralist parties.

Prabowo’s muscular nationalist rhetoric and theatrics on the campaign trail leave Jokowi, looking distinctly provincial. In one massive open air rally in Jakarta, Prabowo arrived by helicopter and paraded on a Lusitano thoroughbred before a phalanx of his party ‘troops’ in white jackets and red berets. In mass gatherings around the archipelago, which he travels to by private jet, Prabowo hammers home his message of national pride, economic renewal and self-sufficiency.

Prabowo’s magic is his ability to project an aura of authority in his public appearances. He has modelled his oration on Indonesia’s charismatic first president Sukarno and imitates his slow and hypnotic cadence, building to a fiery crescendo as he rails against unnamed enemies who have sold out the country and stolen its wealth.

In full flight, Prabowo can be frightening to behold. At a recent rally in Sumatra he shouted himself hoarse, providing a glimpse into what is likely to prove his Achilles heel — his volatile and sometimes violent temperament. Stories abound of his mercurial character and quick resort to physical force against those who cross him.

What kind of Indonesia can we expect if Prabowo wins?

Prabowo has made no secret of his admiration of Soeharto, as well as the iron fisted leadership of Lee Kwan Yew and Deng Xiaoping. Gerindra’s manifesto promises a comprehensive “correction” of the Indonesian political system “to bring it into line with the 1945 Constitution and the national personality”.

Taken together with Prabowo’s frequent criticisms of Indonesia’s democratic system, it is clear that Prabowo aims to undo many of the democratic constitutional reforms implemented since the fall of Soeharto.

If he succeeds, we can expect a more authoritarian, more centralised government in Indonesia, with greater powers vested in the president. Political freedoms, which have seen the flourishing of a diverse media landscape over the past decade, are likely to be curtailed.

We can also expect a government more intolerant of religious and ethnic minorities. Prabowo’s suspected involvement in orchestrating the anti-Chinese violence of May 1998 and his recent flirtation with extremist Muslim organisations has already triggered alarm among Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese and Christian communities.

Prabowo will of course have to rule with the agreement of his coalition partners who can be expected to temper his autocratic impulses. His most powerful ally, though, will be Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie, another billionaire businessman longing for a return to the certainties of the Soeharto era.

Relations with Australia will almost certainly get worse under a Prabowo government. This is not because Indonesia will close itself off to the world economically. Prabowo has indeed gone to great lengths to reassure international audiences that he will welcome foreign investment.

Rather, it is because he will be seeking to play a more assertive role in the region and will be more likely to press Indonesia’s advantage in disputes with neighbouring countries, including Australia. It is certainly hard to picture Prabowo reacting as benignly as the current president has to recent disputes with Australia over breaches of its borders by our navy and to the explosive phone tapping revelations.

Prabowo’s past will also be a major liability. He has already spent many years on the US visa blacklist due to allegations of involvement in torture. While there is no doubt that the US will drop this ban, as it did for India’s Narendra Modi, it is guaranteed that demonstrations and human rights criticisms will hound Prabowo whenever he travels abroad. And no-one dares to predict how he will react that that. Australian politicians and diplomats will be very nostalgic for the halcyon days of SBY.

David Bourchier is an associate professor at the University of Western Australia.