Indonesian strongman Prabowo Subianto promises 'dignity'

Despite question marks over some of his party affiliations, former military strongman makes promise to stamp out corruption in government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 4:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:50pm

Jabbing his finger repeatedly in the air, presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto shouted to supporters in a packed Jakarta stadium that the corrupt had no place in Indonesia.

"You who disgrace Indonesia, you who buy Indonesia ... we must answer 'No! Not this time! Indonesia wants to stand with dignity'," the pugnacious former special forces general said to a roar of applause in a speech ahead of this week's election.

Behind him, applauding, sat one of the most senior Indonesian officials ever to be investigated in a government probe into graft, who is also the head of a major Islamic party supporting Prabowo's July 7 presidential bid.

Suryadharma Ali quit as religious affairs minister in May after being named by the federal anti-corruption agency KPK of being involved in embezzling from the US$5 billion state fund allocated for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Indonesia, the biggest economy in southeast Asia, has the world's biggest population of Muslims.

Ali has maintained his innocence. "Being made a suspect is not the final say on the matter," he has said.

But the presence of Ali and others being investigated for corruption in his coalition raises the question of how effective Prabowo may be if he beats front-runner Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to lead the world's third-largest democracy for the next five years.

His other allies include the Prosperous Justice Party, whose chairman was jailed over a beef import scandal, and the Golkar party of business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, several of whose members are facing corruption charges.

There is a lot of hope invested in political change ... Jokowi represents
Tim Condon, ING Asia economist

Most of the allies are in the coalition of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"The spirit of democracy is being damaged by various practices," Prabowo said in a debate with his rival on Saturday. "I'm not saying there are no thieves in my party. But what I meant was this is a phenomenon in our country, who knows you might have them on your side."

Watch: Indonesians face stark choice in pivotal presidential vote

Prabowo's brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, a central figure in his campaign, said earlier: "We have to make a few unintentional, unwanted compromises. The Indonesian judicial system presumes innocence before proven guilty so I don't want to comment on the recent cases. But we will not compromise on our basic thesis."

Insiders say all of Prabowo's coalition partners have been promised seats in the cabinet, including a special, senior position for Bakrie, the head of the Bakrie Group, a prominent conglomerate that has struggled with environmental and debt problems.

However, Bakrie spokesman Lalu Mara Satri Wangsa, who is also vice-secretary general of Golkar, denied any deals had been sealed.Opinion polls still have the popular and unassuming Widodo in the lead, but the combative Prabowo, running on a platform of strong and effective government, is close behind. A crucial number of voters are undecided.

In an unprecedented move last Friday, the English language Jakarta Post endorsed Widodo, the first time it had backed a candidate or party.

Transparency International ranks Indonesia 114th out of 177 countries it surveys on perception of corruption. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report has said corruption remained "the most problematic factor for doing business" in Indonesia.

Despite Prabowo's tough reputation and his vow to reverse the indecisiveness of Yudhoyono's government, markets are more likely to cheer Widodo in the hope that he represents a change from horse-trading in politics.

"Jokowi represents a break with that kind of past. There is a lot of hope invested in political change of the kind that Jokowi represents," said Tim Condon, ING Asia's chief economist.

Prabowo was once married to a daughter of former ruler Suharto, and was a favoured member of his inner circle at the time.

He has been dogged by persistent allegations of past human rights abuses, in particular during the economic crisis that led to Suharto's downfall in 1998.

He is feared by some of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority, who control much of the country's US$1 trillion economy and were targeted during that mayhem that was orchestrated by thugs believed to be organised by special forces soldiers.

Prabowo was discharged from the army, but never investigated on any criminal charge and has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Now 62, this is his third bid for the presidency.