Prabowo Subianto : will order return ?

Arnaud Richard-Ferraro, traduit par Aurélie Da Rocha
20 Mai 2014

For Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with almost 250 million people, 2014 is a crucial election year. After the renewal of Parliament during the legislative elections of April 9th, the young democracy will soon be led by a new president. Here is a summary of the controversial Prabowo Subianto : one of the two favourite candidates for the presidential election to be held on July 9th.

Photo credit : AFP
Photo credit : AFP
He is going to see it through. The 62-year-old Prabowo Subianto is sure that his time has come. A country like Indonesia, which is as large as Europe, and faces regular challenges due to its religious, ethnic and economic diversity, can only be led by a strong man, and possibly him. In addition to the snapshots of a mystified country presented in his campaign videos, which are all over the screens, you can see a Sumatran tiger roaring, ready to fight. The fact that it is an endangered species does not matter, given that the image we need to be remembered is not this one. It is the image of a man willing to restore unprecedented greatness to his country, the ambition of becoming the driving force of South East Asia, which is currently undergoing substantial changes. 

Prabowo Subianto, who was named after his uncle who died during the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1950), was born in 1951 in an Indonesia that was trying to find its way after almost three centuries of Dutch domination. Grandson of the founder of the country’s main bank, son of an economist who would become Suharto’s Minister of the Economy (1967-1998) and would push him into entering the military. Prabowo graduated from the Military Academy of Magelang (Central Java) in 1974, where he crossed paths with a certain Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the current President of Indonesia, and was sent to East Timor at twenty-six years of age. The Portuguese colony had just gained its independence after Salazar’s downfall in Lisbon. The strong, conquering and "generous” Indonesia could not let itself see the island escape its authority. At the end of 1978, he led the team who captured and eliminated Nicolau dos Reis Lobato, the self-proclaimed President of Timor-Leste.  

"Mister son-in-law"

By marrying Siti Hediati Hariyadi, one of President Suharto’s daughters, in 1983, he tied his fate to the authoritarian and anti-communist “New Order” regime that seized power with the support of the military in 1967. Already respected and feared for being both cruel and intelligent, he was appointed that same year, at thirty-two years old, the Second-in-command of the Indonesian Special Forces, which were later known as Kopassus.

He was sent, along with his troops, to the warm fronts of an Indonesia that did not want to give in, and could not reconcile itself to a proclaimed yet still unachieved unity (West Papua, East Timor, Province of Aceh). Everywhere the Kopassus went, rupture followed, and above all amongst civilians. Some, within Djakarta’s aristocratic spheres of power, looked unfavourably upon the rise of “Mister Son-in-law”, which seemed a little too quick.


In January 1998, at 77 years old, his father-in law/President announced his intention to run for a seventh term, while the country had been caught in the turmoil of the Asian economic crisis for one year. The IMF got its foot in the door and intended to impose its ideas through pressure. Former friends from the Cold War, the United States being the first of them, were looking for an opportunity to give up on this slightly too controversial ally that had become Suharto’s regime, due to frequent violations of Human Rights. Discontent was particularly starting to grow due to uncontrolled inflation. During this chaotic period, the authorities had to close ranks, unite themselves, and be able to count on close people who could be confided in. In the troubled times of March 1998, Prabowo was appointed Head of the Kostrad Strategic Reserve and elite unit that, amongst other things, had to ensure Djakarta’s safety. 

General Wiranto, Commander-in-Chief of the Indonesian army, takes away the stripes of Lieutenant-General Prabowo on May 23rd 1998. Credit :
General Wiranto, Commander-in-Chief of the Indonesian army, takes away the stripes of Lieutenant-General Prabowo on May 23rd 1998. Credit :
Despite the fact that the three letters “KKN”, standing for « Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotisme » (corruption, collusion and nepotism) already crystallised the criticism directed at the regime, the time had come to try to regain control. Students became restless in the universities of the capital and other big cities. The first clashes foreshadowed the Indonesian Spring that would follow. In May, the emblematic month for demonstrations, if there is one, everything escalated. On 12th May, the army killed four students from the University of Trisakti who were demonstrating which sparked things off. The country then underwent three days of riots and pillages, which reached its peak in Djakarta with the death of over a thousand people, mostly of Chinese origin. Part of the crowd joined the rioters and then engaged in the pillaging of everything worth stealing in shopping centres, before some were burnt down. It thus became clear that Suharto could not be part of Indonesia’s future. Prabowo was strongly suspected of having secretly worked to provoke the chaos and atrocities that followed, or if not so, of having let them happen. After his father-in-law was forced to retire, the Head of the Kostrad indeed pictured himself in a winning position, with the support of his troops… Suspected of being willing to want to organize a coup d’état, Prabowo was manoeuvred out of power in a humiliating ceremony during which General Wiranto, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, took away his stripes. This was followed by his unacknowledged exile in Jordan and his divorce from Siti, as if turning the Suharto page. The very sensitive history of this ambivalent month of May 1998, the beginning of a new democratic era, although initiated in blood, was yet to be written.


After a long absence at the turn of the millennium, Prabowo Subianto kept designing his own path and was looking for a way to get back on the political scene of the archipelago. In 2004, while Indonesia had for the first time elected a President by universal suffrage, he was a candidate for the primary elections as part of Golkar (Golongan Rakyat, Party of the Functional groups), Suharto’s party, which had survived the Indonesia of the reformasi. Prabowo, coming in last, then understood that he was the only one able to defy History, who saw him as a man of the past, with hands, according to many people, which were still stained with too much blood. The instrument of this ambition, which did not give in to the new humiliation, was named Gerindra (Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya, the Great Indonesia Movement Party), and was really committed to the cause of bringing him to the Palace of Independence. In 2008, Prabowo thus left Golkar and created his own party, with his brother’s financial support. It claimed to be a Social Democratic party but particularly advocated the restoration of a strong and sovereign authority which, in a context of democracy, knew how to impose its will and rescue the country from the downward spiral of the recent decentralisation, seen as the cause of immobility. He was a vice presidential candidate in 2009, on a ticket led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the Father of Independence. The new attempt resulted once more in a failure. But it did not matter to him as he was no willing to play second role.

Some ill-intentioned gossipers like to say that Prabowo’s intelligence really lies in his younger brother’s head, Hashim Djohohadikusumo, who is always there to get the campaign back on track in important moments. Like in the past few days, when a wave of concern broke out among the country’s financial community in reaction to Prabowo’s alleged willingness to expel foreign companies. It was Hashim, who happens to be one of the country’s richest people -a fortune that his brother helped build- who denied it and tried to reassure people.


The secret of a successful election campaign lies in the art of acting and handling symbols. This dimension appears to be all the more important in the current presidential campaign, which is highly centred on the contrast between personalities, to the detriment of actual fundamental debates in the young democracy. For that matter, while the other favourite candidate Jokowi, personified by his blusukan (unexpected and unescorted appearances in the outskirts of the capital, to meet the most modest inhabitants while dressed in white), seemed, at first, to be two steps ahead, Prabowo Subianto knew how to show that he himself had mastered the codes of the political show. Last March, during a huge, open-air gathering organised by his party in his honour, he made an aerial entrance, landing in a helicopter in Djarkarta’s largest stadium, where a crowd of supporters, roused by dangdut singers, had gathered. He then rode a thoroughbred Arabian horse, for a triumphant lap of honour, wearing a kriss (traditional large knife for the soldiers of the archipelago) on his belt. Images of power, grandeur and strength that remind us of the aesthetics displayed by a certain Russian President…

During a giant a stadium of Djakarta on March 23rd,  Prabowo Subianto reviews “his troops ». Credit : AF
During a giant a stadium of Djakarta on March 23rd, Prabowo Subianto reviews “his troops ». Credit : AF
During the legislative elections of April 9th last year, which were decisive for the future of the competition, the Gerindra party ranked third out of the twelve parties that were allowed to compete, thus nearly tripling the 2009 score. Wishing to pursue this dynamic, Prabowo, had just joined forces with three of the country’s Muslim parties and chosen Hatta Rajasa, the exiting government’s Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs, as a fellow candidate. He is really determined to take his revenge on destiny at the presidential elections of July 9th.