• Tue
  • Sep 23, 2014
  • Updated: 10:56pm
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INDONESIA

Prabowo, figure from Indonesia's past seeking to 'turn back the clock' on democracy

Dictator's former son-in-law, who claims to have won election, has made no secret of his desire to 'turn back the clock' on democratic reform

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 6:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 6:06am
 

Sixteen years after the overthrow of the dictator Suharto, Indonesia could turn back towards that regime after his former son-in-law claimed victory in a race to run the world's third-largest democracy.

Prabowo Subianto, one of Suharto's youngest generals, who was fired from his post in the army in 1998 for his role in the abduction and torture of pro-democracy activists, claims he has won the election. His rival, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, also claims victory. Widodo was the front runner in the build up to the election but squandered more than 30 points from his lead towards the end of the campaign.

Official results will not be released until July 22, due to the complexity of holding elections across the world's biggest archipelago nation.

Widodo came out ahead with 52 per cent of the vote, according to the three most credible unofficial quick counts. But Prabowo pointed to lesser-known surveys showing he came out on top. He said he would consider the election commission's announcement as the "only formal result of the election".

Prabowo is "extremely hungry" for the job, according to veteran Indonesia analyst Kevin Evans. "I think he recognises this is his last serious run for it, so it's now or never. He's a man who's held great ambitions for himself and his country since he was a young fellow."

Prabowo had sought to become the presidential candidate of the Golkar party, Suharto's former political vehicle, in 2004, but was not selected. He left to form his own party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party, and ran for vice president in 2009 on a ticket with ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who failed to win.

The prospect of Prabowo taking charge has sparked concern that democratic gains made since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998 could be rolled back.

"Prabowo represents, at the very least, the turning of the tide and the beginning of what might be a serious authoritarian reversal," said Edward Aspinall, a professor of politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. "He emerged from the very heart of the old authoritarian system."

Bankrolled by his tycoon brother, and with the support of allies including Suharto's old party, Prabowo, 62, has made no bones about his desire to roll back democratisation and reinstate the supremacy of the president. After a decade of stagnation and widespread corruption, voters in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation are listening.

Outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono failed to meet his target of 7 per cent annual economic growth during a 10-year rule even as Chinese demand sparked a commodities boom for the resource-rich country. While mining magnates piled up wealth, a failure to build roads and ports or curb bureaucratic corruption stifled development.

Prabowo has capitalised on the sense of drift with a "get- things-done" message backed by better funding. With about US$150 million in assets, Prabowo is almost 60 times wealthier than his rival, the Corruption Eradication Commission said on July 1. His brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, has interests from mining to paper and was worth US$700 million in November, Forbes estimated.

"He's got powerful backing and he's got a message that resonates with a lot of Indonesians and he's able to get in front of them and spread the word," said Tim Condon, Singapore-based head of Asia research at ING Groep NV, who worked for the World Bank in Jakarta from 1992 to 1996. Prabowo's platform of a firm grip over the nation offers a throwback to an era before political pluralism, when cartels, many run by Suharto relatives, dominated the economy.

Prabowo has made repeated references during his campaign to a return to the 1945 constitution, before post-Suharto reforms reduced the power of the president. In a debate on June 28 in the capital, he questioned whether the country even needed direct elections. "How do we turn back the clock of history?" said Prabowo, likening direct elections to cigarette addiction. "It's been felt so good for so long, that asking to stop, the process will be very difficult."

During a television appearance, Prabowo denied that he wanted to be a dictator and said that, as a soldier, he had taken an oath "to guard the constitution".

Prabowo "is beating the economic nationalist drum," said John McCarthy, Australia's ambassador to Indonesia from 1997 to 2000. "The Indonesians are tired of foreign investors coming in and taking a lot of money out, particularly in the mining sector."

Prabowo wants to raise more money from capital markets and tax, as well as spur economic expansion by doubling the rate of borrowing.

"Jokowi's proposed changes are not so much in terms of economic reform, but in bureaucratic reform and improved service delivery," said Jeffrey Neilson, Indonesia coordinator at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney. "A Prabowo victory would likely reinvigorate the inner circles of power that held sway under Suharto. That would not be good for the economy."

"Indonesia is at a pivot point here, a real crossroads," said Murdoch University's David Hill, author of Journalism and Politics in Indonesia. "Regardless of who wins, Indonesia will probably become a different country."

A victory for Prabowo would make him the sixth leader linked to Suharto, or the previous dictator he overthrew, Sukarno. After student protests culminated in Suharto's resignation in May 1998, the country was briefly run by B.J. Habibie, who had served under the former dictator for 20 years. Then came a 21-month stint from religious leader Abdurrahman Wahid, a former Suharto ally, followed by Megawati, daughter of Indonesia's founding father Sukarno.

Prabowo was born in 1951 to a wealthy, prominent family. His father was Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, who served as finance and trade minister, while his grandfather established the country's first state-owned bank.

When he was five, his family fled overseas after his father became involved in a separatist movement, and he lived in countries including Singapore, Switzerland and England. He returned to Indonesia and joined the military in 1970. In 1983 he married one of Suharto's daughters, Siti Hediati Hariyadi. They have divorced, but speculation swirled during the election campaign they may reunite, with Muslim parties pushing for a reunion, fearful the country may end up with an unmarried leader.

In his role as head of the army's special forces, he ordered the abduction of democracy activists ahead of Suharto's downfall. He was dismissed from the military in 1998 over the kidnappings, and went into voluntary exile in Jordan.

A Prabowo victory could prove awkward for the United States, an ally of Indonesia. He was once refused a visa to the US over his rights record, although American officials have indicated that he would probably be allowed to visit as president.

Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press

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