Growing nostalgia for former dictator Suharto aids Indonesian election candidates

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 March, 2014, 11:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2014, 11:38pm


Painted on the back of trucks and emblazoned across T-shirts, the smiling face of former Indonesian dictator Suharto has become a common sight across Java 16 years after his downfall.

"How are you bro? Still better in my time, no?!" runs a phrase commonly printed alongside the late army general, toppled following more than three decades in power when the Asian financial crisis tore into Indonesia.

As voters gear up for legislative elections next month and presidential polls in July, disillusionment is running high with the country's chaotic democracy, notorious for money-grubbing politicians and weak decision-making, while Suharto nostalgia grows.

Sympathisers have chosen to brush aside the glaring bad points of his regime, known as the "New Order" and widely regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century.

I like him because when violence erupted, he just crushed it

Vote-seeking politicians play up their links to Suharto, particularly from his former political vehicle Golkar, crowds flock to his tomb and a memorial has been set up in his birthplace in Kemusuk in Java.

"I like him because when violence erupted, he just crushed it," said Sumarah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, during a recent visit to the memorial in central Java.

"People lived in peace, there were no demonstrations like nowadays, which cost the economy a lot," added the 46-year-old.

Suharto, who died in 2008, became president in 1967 when he was a young army general, shortly after putting down an attempted coup, and on the back of a bloody massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and sympathisers which was encouraged by the military.

His long rule was marked by severe repression and colossal corruption. Graft watchdog Transparency International ranks him as the most corrupt leader in history, estimating he embezzled between US$15 and US$35 billion during his rule.

But a growing number look longingly at the Suharto era, praising him for bringing stability after Indonesia's painful birth pangs that followed Dutch colonial rule and overseeing an economic boom.

In a bustling market in Yogyakarta, central Java, T-shirts at a stall show a picture of Suharto next to the words: "Don't you miss that long-gone era of food self-sufficiency and guaranteed security?"

On weekends up to 2,000 people flock to the tomb of Suharto and his wife outside the Javanese city of Solo, which is set in manicured hills and packed with hawkers selling T-shirts and framed pictures of the couple.

Politicians, particularly from Golkar, which was used by Suharto to give his iron-fisted rule a semblance of democracy but which is now a fully-fledged party, believe they have a lot to gain from the nostalgia.

"This will certainly benefit Golkar," Aburizal Bakrie, the party's presidential candidate, told the Jakarta Post newspaper in a recent interview.

"The elite can say any type of negative things about the New Order, but (common) people wish to go back to that system," he said.