May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The eagle has crash-landed

The eagle has crash-landed

Dirk Tomsa

    ‘Beware! Killers surround us! We remember those who were
    abducted and killed. We do not forget, we do not forgive.’
    An image popular among Indonesian users of Facebook

Ten years ago it seemed as if Prabowo Subianto’s political career was over before it had really begun. During the twilight days of the New Order, the former commander of the notorious special forces unit Kopassus had lost a power struggle against his arch-rival Wiranto and was subsequently dismissed from the military. Accused of involvement in the abduction of student activists and the instigation of the anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in May 1998, the former son-in-law of ousted president Suharto considered it safer to leave the country and go into temporary hiding. In self-imposed exile in Jordan he turned his attention to business, making a fortune on the international oil and gas market and through a number of high-stake deals aided by his billionaire brother, business tycoon Hashim Djojohadikusumo.

In the meantime, Prabowo’s arch-rival from his days in the army, Wiranto, enjoyed a brief moment in the sun. Having outmaneuvered Prabowo during the turbulent days of the transition, the former adjutant of Suharto was instrumental in helping Abdurrahman Wahid to an unexpected stint at the presidency in 1999. But to Wiranto’s disappointment, his support for Wahid did not bring the desired recompense. Instead of being rewarded with the vice-presidency, he had to make do with a ministerial post. Shortly afterwards, Wahid added insult to injury when he sacked Wiranto from the cabinet. Thus, merely two years after the fall of Suharto it seemed, for a short time at least, as if there was no place for either Wiranto or Prabowo in Indonesia’s new democracy.

Two years after the fall of Suharto it seemed there was no place for either Wiranto or Prabowo in Indonesia’s new democracy

It did not take long for the two to attempt political comebacks. In 2004, Wiranto and Prabowo were both candidates in Golkar’s national convention to select a presidential candidate. Wiranto in particular invested huge amounts of money at the convention in order to secure a place in Indonesia’s first-ever direct presidential election. In the end the former commander-in-chief of the armed forces did manage to win the convention, but he failed to make it all the way to the palace, finishing third in the presidential poll. Undeterred by the defeat, Wiranto then moved on to found his own party (Hanura) and soon began preparing for the next elections in 2009.

His old foe Prabowo, meanwhile, was not just sitting idly by. In fact, it seemed as if defeat at the Golkar convention had only whetted his appetite for politics. Watching Wiranto’s activities carefully, Prabowo too began to get ready for the next elections. In contrast to his half-hearted campaign in 2004, however, this time he meant business. Assisted by a high-profile media consultancy firm from the United States, Prabowo crafted an elaborate strategy which he hoped would eventually elevate him to the highest office. The strategy consisted of three main pillars: first, mobilisation of support for his bid; second, enhancing name recognition for his organisational vehicle; and third, finding a niche in the political spectrum that he could use to distinguish himself from other candidates.

Finding the right vehicle

Prabowo’s first step was to assume control over one of Indonesia’s biggest mass organisations, the national farmers’ association HKTI (Himpunan Kerukunan Tani Indonesia). Created during the New Order as a corporatist tool for Suharto to monitor Indonesia’s millions of peasants, this organisation had descended into political oblivion after 1998, but its vague affiliation with the rural masses made it an ideal vehicle for Prabowo because it provided him with an opportunity to begin his image-building campaign by presenting himself as a champion of the poor. In December 2004 he was elected HKTI chairman with 309 out of 325 votes – never mind that he was not even a member of the association at that time.

The HKTI position provided Prabowo with valuable access to an organisational base, but with a view to the 2009 elections he needed more than the chairmanship of a mass organisation. Indonesia’s electoral rules dictate that only candidates who are nominated by political parties are allowed to contest a presidential election, so in order to avoid dependence on the goodwill of an already existing party, he decided to emulate what various other retired generals had done before him: he created a new party of his own. And so Gerindra (Movement for a Great Indonesia) was born, a party with a fierce-looking Garuda eagle on its logo (the Garuda is the centrepiece of Indonesia’s national coat of arms). From the day of its formation in February 2008, Gerindra dedicated itself almost exclusively to promoting the presidential ambitions of Prabowo Subianto.

At first sight, Gerindra appeared to be not much different from the various other parties that had been established by retired generals in recent years. Just like Edi Sudradjat’s PKPI, Hartono’s PKPB and more recently Wiranto’s Hanura, Gerindra too seemed to stand for little more than conservative nationalism imbued with a touch of New Order nostalgia. And yet, many observers were much more concerned about Gerindra than the other parties formed by retired officers. A closer look at the composition of its leadership board and its advisory council reveals why. Formally led by a largely unknown forestry professor called Suhardi, Gerindra provides a political home for a number of controversial former generals who continue to be dogged by persistent allegations of gross human rights violations. Amongst the most prominent are Gleny Kairupan, a former intelligence officer with a dubious track record in East Timor, Muchdi Purwopranyoto, who despite his exoneration by a Jakarta court is widely believed to have masterminded the murder of human rights activist Munir in September 2004, and of course Prabowo himself, whose list of alleged crimes includes abduction, torture, and instigation of large-scale anti-Chinese riots. For this reason, Gerindra and Prabowo caused particular alarm among human rights advocates, many of whom protested openly against his presidential campaign this year.

In order to dispel this image, Prabowo pursued an ingenious plan. To the disbelief of those human rights activists who now opposed his candidature, Prabowo approached some of his former victims and persuaded them to join his party. Why exactly former student activists like Desmond Mahesa or Pius Lustrilanang, and Haryanto Taslam, a former leader of Megawati Soekarnoputri’s PDI-P, all three of whom were kidnapped by Prabowo’s troops in 1998, agreed to support the presidential ambitions of their former tormentor has been the subject of much speculation. Some observers have argued that they were simply bought off while others claim they may suffer from Stockholm syndrome (a psychological condition in which victims of abductions become emotionally attached to their hostage-taker). The three men themselves have rejected all such speculation and simply maintained that after Prabowo had apologised to them, it was time to move on.

An unprecedented media campaign

For Prabowo, people like Haryano, Desmond and Pius represented important human capital that could be used in his bid for the presidency. But the real weapon in Prabowo Subianto’s struggle to polish his image was an unprecedented media offensive which in mid-2008 ushered in the second phase of his presidential campaign. While other parties were still in the planning stage, Prabowo began to inundate the Indonesian public with an unparalleled bombardment of political advertisements.

Buoyed by a self-confidence bordering on hubris, Prabowo used these advertisements to liken himself to statesmen ranging from Napoleon and Sukarno to Barack Obama

Buoyed by a self-confidence bordering on hubris, Prabowo used these advertisements to liken himself to an array of past and present statesmen, ranging from Napoleon and Sukarno to Barack Obama. All television advertisements featured the majestic Garuda eagle and consistently highlighted the alleged failure of post-Suharto administrations to realise Indonesia’s huge economic potential. To fund this media onslaught, the soldier-cum-businessman-cum-politician had to dig deep into his pockets (and those of his brother Hashim). According to a Gerindra official, the media campaign alone cost about US$100 million, leaving plenty of room for speculation about just how much more was spent on other campaign activities.

Throughout his media offensive, Prabowo portrayed himself as the only presidential contender capable of liberating Indonesia from the yoke of rural poverty, unemployment and foreign debt. So far, so predictable. What very few observers had predicted, however, was the solution Prabowo proposed for the country’s alleged malaise. Driven by the need to distinguish himself from his rivals, the man who owed his fortune largely to strategic maneuvers on global financial markets and to his connections to some of Indonesia’s most powerful elite families campaigned on a quasi-socialist platform, criticising the government’s privatisation agenda and proposing revisions of existing contracts with foreign companies such as Freeport and Exxon. Given Prabowo’s background, this may sound cynical, but the ‘anti-neoliberal’ label helped him to stand out from his rivals. And in view of the electoral success of other big-spending leftist populists like Hugo Chavez or perhaps Thaksin Shinawatra the strategy made sense, especially in times of a global financial crisis.

Was it all in vain?

So why did it not work? Even though Prabowo had implemented his campaign strategy meticulously from the start, Gerindra got less than five per cent of the vote (Wiranto’s Hanura party fared even worse, achieving only about three per cent). A number of reasons probably account for this poor result, including persistent discomfort amongst many Indonesians about Prabowo’s hardline image and his human rights record, as well as widespread apprehension about his links to the Suharto family. Taken together, these factors apparently provided a substantial deterrent for many voters. Arguably the most important reason, however, is that despite the global financial crisis the overall socio-economic conditions in Indonesia were simply not ripe for the emergence of a populist saviour.

The man who owed his fortune to strategic global financial markets and connections to some of Indonesia’s most powerful elite families campaigned on a quasi-socialist platform

Thanks largely to the government’s three-phase ‘direct cash assistance’ (BLT) program, many poorer Indonesians appear to be quite satisfied with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s performance. Significantly, the third phase of the BLT program was implemented in late March 2009, which meant that merely two weeks before the election more than 18 million poor families received yet another government-sponsored cash injection of Rp 100,000 per month, to be distributed over a period of two months. In view of these measures taken by the incumbent president, it is hardly surprising that few of the millions of farmers and fisherfolk targeted by Prabowo saw a need for a radical overhaul of the economic system. Moreover, even those who may actually have seen this need were apparently reluctant to believe that the person to implement it would be, of all people, Prabowo Subianto, who, to put it lightly, is hardly famous for his philanthropy.

Another important reason for Prabowo’s failure to push Gerindra to a better result was that his campaign was essentially regressive. Despite the professional outlook of the advertisements, Gerindra appeared to be preoccupied primarily with romanticising the past rather than outlining the future. This nostalgia was epitomised in a statement by Gerindra’s deputy chairman Fadli Zon who maintained that Gerindra ‘would like to rebuild Indonesia just like how it was in the past when people gained prosperity from agriculture and fishing’. Clearly, the election result showed that very few Indonesians share this desire to go back in time. Thus, it could be argued that Prabowo may have revolutionised the style of political advertising in Indonesia, but he failed to match his impressive style with a convincing message.

So Prabowo will not become Indonesia’s next president, and neither will Wiranto. Does that mean that at long last there really is no place for these two in Indonesia’s democracy? Not quite. Despite the clear verdict at the ballot box and poor approval ratings in most opinion polls, both Prabowo and Wiranto are running as vice-presidential candidates for Megawati and Jusuf Kalla respectively. This may look like a consolation prize only, but it will ensure that the two will continue to have a place in the system for years to come. And don’t be surprised if they run for president again in 2014.     ii

Dirk Tomsa ( is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.