On the eve of the Indonesian elections, the victory of a dangerous relic of the Suharto regime is worryingly likely.

By Hamish McDonald.

Hamish McDonald
Prabowo Subianto threatens to win Indonesian election & restore autocracy

Arief Priyadi holds up his ballpoint pen and points to its conical metal tip. “It was no bigger than this,” he says, referring to the bullet from an army or police sniper rifle that tore through the chest of his only son, Wawan, nearly 16 years ago.

Wawan, 20, was one of thousands of Indonesian students pushed back onto the campus of Jakarta’s Atma Jaya University by army and police as they tried to march on the national parliament in the turbulent months following the resignation of the military-backed ruler Suharto. The snipers continued firing into the campus for hours, killing Wawan and seven other students, and wounding scores more. It was one of three such major shooting incidents against political demonstrators in that transitional era.

So long ago now, but every Thursday afternoon Arief and his wife, Sumarsih, gather with other relatives of the dead and disappeared on the edge of Merdeka Square, just across the road from Indonesia’s presidential palace, asking for a full investigation.

The political class in the parliament has twice rejected motions to set up a special court of inquiry, deeming the incidents not “serious enough” as human rights violations. Sumarsih lost her job as a parliamentary staffer when she burst out in protest after the first refusal. No one has ever come out to address the vigil from inside the white-columned palace, occupied for the past 10 years by the retiring president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But the price of trying to cover over and forget the past is coming back to haunt Jakarta, hitting the elite where it hurts most: a steadily falling rupiah. Rapidly gaining ground in the last days of campaigning for Wednesday’s presidential election is one of the most feared and controversial figures from the dark side of the past, Prabowo Subianto. The increasing possibility of him taking power is draining confidence from the economy.   

Six months before Wawan died in 1998, Prabowo had reacted with fury as events snatched away what he assumed was his destiny to succeed Suharto, his then father-in-law. After an erratic career in and out of the Kopassus (army special forces), first as hero against the resistance in Timor-Leste, then as loose cannon threatening his superiors, Prabowo was poised in command of the army’s most combat-ready units. He had pulled out all stops to save the regime, warning the prosperous ethnic-Chinese minority he would expel them if capital flight did not stop. He had sent Kopassus teams to abduct and torture protest leaders. 

Then, when Suharto did resign, his civilian vice-president showed unexpected backbone in resisting Prabowo’s pressure to hand over security powers − an opening to repeat Suharto’s “creeping coup” against founding president Sukarno in 1966 − and getting Prabowo drummed out of the army, before launching democratic reforms.

Now Prabowo is back, divorced from Suharto’s daughter, a wealthy man thanks to investments in coal, palm oil and fisheries, and with a billionaire brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, on tap as well. Prabowo claims now to be wedded to Indonesia’s new democracy − implausibly to some acquaintances who use words such as “psychopath” and “megalomaniac” to describe his volatile character. A pre-condition of press interviews is that no questions be asked about his human rights record.

He speaks of making Indonesia a “strong” country, achieving food self-sufficiency by intensifying cultivation across the archipelago, an agrarian dream pursued by Suharto with sometimes disastrous environmental results.

Only a month ago, it seemed this retro-appeal was doomed to failure. Polls showed a commanding lead to Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), the popular governor of Jakarta who had become the candidate of the secular-nationalist Sukarnoist party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, after nudging Sukarno’s daughter Megawati aside with due Javanese deference. 

There are worries about some advisers Widodo has inherited from Megawati, notably a clutch of former generals with their own black records. He’s also made an unwise remark about tilting the bureaucracy against foreign investors. But from an impoverished family in the small city of Solo, rising through public schools to university, then building his own furniture export business before becoming Solo’s mayor, he is the first non-elite, non-military and post-Suharto era figure to be a serious candidate for president. As city administrator in Solo and Jakarta, he’s shown himself to be free of corruption, effective, unpretentious and open to the public.

Yet since parliamentary elections in April, Prabowo has added money, organisation and religion to his already slick and well-funded campaign. 

The money and grassroots organisation comes from the Golkar party, former political prop of the Suharto regime, now a massive patronage machine headed by Aburizal Bakrie, the heavily indebted tycoon notorious for corporate shenanigans such as the Bumi Plc coal affair and the “mud volcano” created by one of his companies in East Java. 

Religion comes from a trio of Muslim-based parties, two of which have leaders in jail or facing trial for large-scale corruption, one for rorting beef import quotas, the other for siphoning off funds meant for pilgrims to Mecca.

The line-up makes a mockery of Prabowo’s campaign message excoriating “thieves” who have appropriated Indonesia’s wealth and “sold” the country to foreigners, but it seems to have traction in an electorate mostly too young to remember pre-democratic times. 

Yudhoyono’s notorious “indecisiveness” – shirking budget reforms, allowing religious zealots to oppress minorities, and leaving unaddressed the atrocities of recent history going back to the 1965-66 massacre of a million communists − has also contributed to the yearning for firmer government and the excusing of the past that Prabowo is exploiting. 

Could Prabowo restore autocracy from the inside, Vladimir Putin-style? His coalition gives him, in theory, 60 per cent of the parliament, a platform perhaps for the constitutional amendments to transfer power back to the presidency. The stance of the semi-reformed military is an unknown. Legions of preman (street thugs), including former Kopassus soldiers, have latched on to Prabowo’s party. Some worried analysts, such as the ANU’s Ed Aspinall, think it all too possible.

As Indonesia decides, Arief Priyadi, now 64, hopes for a leader courageous enough to trace responsibility for the death of his son, Wawan – perhaps Widodo’s running mate, Jusuf Kalla, who in previous governments was instrumental in settling vicious civil wars in Sulawesi, Ambon and Aceh. But few political transitions are a clean break, and the dark side of Indonesia’s past is proving uncomfortably persistent. Yudhoyono’s decade in office was supposed to lead in the other direction. Now Indonesians are not so sure, and holding their breath before Wednesday.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 5, 2014 as "The price of a dark past".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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