Prabowo Subianto and the Rollercoaster of Indonesian Politics
Despite his failure in the 2009 presidential election and his Suharto-era baggage, Prabowo Subianto is doing everything he can to ensure he is a genuine contender in the 2014 elections.
Interesting times for Prabowo Subianto, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and former Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) commander. Following the failure of his 2009 bid for the presidency, he has continued to manoeuvre for position for the 2014 elections.
A key question for Prabowo is how far he can overcome his past associations with the Suharto regime and army units that were responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the latter stages of the military regime. Recently there have been calls from activists and elements in the press to further investigate the disappearance of activists in 1998, in which Prabowo was allegedly involved (Prabowo was dismissed from his command then the military after a military tribunal found him culpable for kidnappings during 1998). As someone who has ‘never denied that I am Suharto’s man’, he represents a link to some of the dark reaches of Indonesia’s recent past
Prabowo has made some efforts to overcome these challenges. He managed to gain the support of some of the activists kidnapped in 1998 (the reasons these activists came out in Prabowo’s support have been hotly contested). Moreover, in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections of this July, Prabowo has thrown his support behind Joko Jokowi Widodo and his running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. This is particularly significant given that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is ethnically Chinese Indonesian, whilst Prabowo has struggled to shake of allegations that he was involved in the incitement of rioting in 1998 that targeted the ethnic Chinese.
Prabowo is in a strange position. The race for the presidency is open one – president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cannot stand beyond his current second term and the current crop of candidates is rather uninspiring (the Indonesian phrase itu-itu saja, or ‘the same old’ comes up often). Indeed in some polls he has come out as the most popular of the major likely candidates. There is a long way to go and one survey found 60% of Indonesians had not yet made up their minds. Moreover, he is still vulnerable to accusations about past abuses. One survey found only about 30% were aware of his ejection from the military for his role in the aforementioned kidnappings.
Organisationally, Prabowo has run up against opposition but also sought new allies. His leadership style, exacerbated by tensions between civilian and military elements in the party, has encouraged some high-profile defections. Moreover, following Prabowo’s re-election as head of the Indonesian Farmers Association (HKTI), a rival grouping has formed an alternative leadership. On the other hand, Prabowo has gained support of ‘reformed’ gangster Hercules and his New Indonesian People’s Movement.
Add in a high profile international trade dispute indirectly involving Prabowo’s business interests and it seems there is are all manner of twists and turns possible before the next general elections.