FORMER military commander Prabowo Subianto has been a household name in Indonesia for several decades now, but at present he is among the most talked-about aspiring politicians in the country as Indonesians prepare for the next general election in early April.
The former son-in-law of President Suharto and the former head of the Komando Pasukan Khusus (Kopassus–Special Operations Command) now leads the Gerindra party. Set up only in 2008, the party has already announced its presence on the landscape of Indonesian politics in no uncertain terms.
With Prabowo’s entry into the democratic race, yet another former military heavyweight (including the present President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) has entered the space of civilian politics.
According to Jakarta-based analyst Shafie’ Anwar, “Gerindra may well be one of the richest political parties in Indonesia today.” And if its media presence is to be used as the yardstick for its success thus far, Gerindra has certainly made an impact.
Gerindra’s electoral ads, featuring its leader Prabowo, were being screened as early as mid-2008, months before any of the other parties even began cranking up their election campaign machinery. From the outset, Prabowo had made his priorities and agenda clear: to unite the country under the banner of Pan-Indonesian nationalism and to restore a sense of pride to a country that is still suffering under the burden of the 1998 economic crisis.
Gerindra’s image and message are intimately linked to the personality of Prabowo himself, and it would not be far-fetched to claim that he is the party and the party is him. Officially, the party and its leader present themselves as secular, populist and nationalist.
But local analysts who have studied Prabowo’s political career point to the fact that he was once closely linked to the more conservative hardliners of the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia and Pelajar Islam Indonesia that were known for their rather communitarian stance.
Many analysts have also expressed their concern about the brand of nationalism that Prabowo is promoting through his party Gerindra, for fear that it is more akin to the race-based ethno-nationalism that was prevalent among the right-wing groups and parties of Indonesia during Suharto’s New Order (Orde Baru) regime.
One of the brickbats that has been thrown at Prabowo is his alleged anti-Chinese stand and his role in the anti-Chinese riots that took place in Jakarta in May 1998, during the last stages of the fall of former President Suharto.
Prabowo (Public domain)That Prabowo is dubbed as being anti-Chinese is interesting, considering that many of his own relatives are married to Indonesians of Chinese origin. Perhaps the most damaging allegation of all lies in the fact that during the closing years of Suharto’s rule, Prabowo was the head of Kopassus.
Kopassus is a crack military unit that gained fame as well as notoriety for many of its “black operations” including the counter-insurgency operations in places like East Timor and Aceh. In East Timor, for instance, Kopassus has been cited as one of the elite military units that was responsible for most of the human rights abuses meted out there during the mid- to late 1970s.
As head of Kopassus, Prabowo was seen as being one of those directly responsible for the attacks on the Chinese community that took place in mid-1998, at a time when many local Indonesian analysts claimed that a diversion was sought to save the tottering regime of Suharto from its final collapse.
With the Indonesian Rupiah dropping in value on a daily basis then, and with the flight of both foreign and local capital from the country, blame for the economic crisis was placed on the Chinese business community. They were made the scapegoats for the country’s economic collapse, and were dubbed “outsiders”, “foreigners” and “traitors”.
Between April and June 1998, riots broke out in Chinese areas such as Glodok in downtown Jakarta, where scores of Chinese businesses and homes were torched by angry mobs. It was claimed then, and now, that these riots were never spontaneous, but rather organised forays into the Chinese neighbourhoods that were intended to divert attention from the failing economy.
Among the military and security units blamed for these attacks was Kopassus, with Prabowo as its leader.
Prabowo and the Gerindra leadership, however, have presented themselves today as a nationalist party that caters to the needs of all Indonesians, particularly from the lower peasant and industrial worker classes. Included in this rank of the poor and marginalised are poor Chinese citizens too, they insist.
But for analyst Shafie’ Anwar, this amounts to “Prabowo trying to rewrite his history.” Whichever way the political rhetoric turns, however, it is undeniable that Prabowo Subianto, as the former head of Kopassus, is still forced to carry the stigma of his past. The Indonesian electorate will not forget his role both as the head of Kopassus — seen as the unit most closely aligned to Suharto and the Praetorian guard of the old regime — as well as his alleged involvement in the anti-Chinese violence of 1998.
Susilo Bambang (Source: presidensby.info)Demise of ethno-nationalism?
Despite Gerindra’s initial strong showing in the mainstream media, the party is now falling behind the bigger parties — the Partai Demokrat, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan and Golongan Karya (Golkar) — in the run-up to the elections.
(Public domain)Gerindra’s media campaign was undoubtedly one of the best organised and slick in recent Indonesian history, but as the date for the elections looms closer, Indonesian voters seem to be opting for the bigger parties of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Megawati Soekarnoputri and Jusuf Kalla.
Have Indonesians passed that crucial threshold where the language of ethno-nationalism and communitarianism have grown outdated and irrelevant? The answer will come on 9 April 2009, when Indonesians will cast their votes by the millions.
Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of The Other Malaysia website, where this article also appears.