Losing is not an option: Indonesia's Prabowo tells ST

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto discusses politics on a private jet to a rally in Semarang, Central Java. He is on the brink of presidency, as surveys now put him within a hair's breadth of his only rival, frontrunner Joko Widodo. -- ST PHOTO
Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto discusses politics on a private jet to a rally in Semarang, Central Java. He is on the brink of presidency, as surveys now put him within a hair's breadth of his only rival, frontrunner Joko Widodo. -- ST PHOTO:  ZUBAIDAH NAZEER

JAKARTA - On a private jet from Jakarta to a rally where 10,000 have gathered to hear his address in Semarang, Central Java, presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto sips a chilled soda as he discusses politics.

"I don't really prepare, I go with the flow," he told The Straits Times, in an interview given before the fasting month began.

Self-assured and full of energy, he is on a decade-long mission to lead his nation. After a remarkable comeback, surveys now put him within a hair's breadth of his only rival, frontrunner Joko Widodo.

Since failing to win the Golkar chairmanship in 2004 and losing as a vice-presidential candidate in 2009, the presidency is now within his grasp.

Having exploited weaknesses in Mr Widodo's campaign, the 62-year-old former special forces general has amassed the support of 63 per cent of the new parliament, with a large coalition that includes the Democrat party of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Mr Prabowo's long and turbulent fight for the presidency has been driven by a sense of destiny.

"We are a proud family. We were taught that our family always served the country, served the people, served the society," he says during the 40-minute flight

Political discussions are common at the dinner table of his family, many of whom have followed him into politics. The family traces its roots to the Javanese heroes who fought the Dutch in the wars of independence.

His grandfather, Margono Djojohadikusumo, and his father, Dr Soemitro, shaped his uncompromising views on politics. Both served as ministers and the latter as central bank chief.

"Life is always a struggle between good and evil. That had a very big influence on me."

It was the death of two uncles on the same day in January 1946, during the war of independence against the Dutch, that inspired Mr Prabowo to join the military.

"Military service is the highest sacrifice, because you put your life at the service of the country, and if your country asks for you to give your life, you must give it," says a man who rose rapidly to become former President Suharto's most trusted general before his fall from grace in 1998.

After being dismissed from the military for his role in the kidnapping of democracy activists in the chaos that led to the downfall of Mr Suharto, and cast out by the elite, he exiled himself to Jordan before returning in 2002.

But his sense of injustice about this episode and the family history of anti-colonial struggle are not the only factors driving his quest for the highest office.

Added to that were the racial slurs he endured as the only Asian in class when studying in international schools such as in Switzerland, Hong Kong and United Kingdom.

"There was this burning conviction that I must prove that Indonesians are not stupid monkeys," says the man whose campaign has fashioned himself as the saviour of Indonesia, with banners and posters like "Selamatkan Indonesia (Save Indonesia)".

"We want to be a modern country. We want to be equal with the West but we admired the West... and yet we felt this racism," he says while tucking into a Big Mac on the flight back to Jakarta, as he tries to maintain his energy levels throughout his punishing schedule.

"I think this is influenced by people like Dr Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew - the desire that we are not third-class humans, but we can also be modern, we can compete," he says, conveying his admiration for the former prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore.

Indeed, one common theme Mr Prabowo uses to whip up crowds at his rallies is to highlight how "foreigners are stealing our national resources".

"We are brought up to be too hospitable, and don't realise our wealth is being stolen... they say Indonesians are stupid, our leaders can be bought," he yelled at a rally in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on June 17.

But when meeting foreign investors and diplomats, he tells them that international capital is crucial for Indonesia's development.

Thus, Mr Prabowo is man of contradictions. Although his family went into exile after rebelling against Sukarno in 1957, he self-consciously tries to mimic the rhetorical style of Indonesia's founding President.

Some of the activists he detained in 1998 later joined his own Gerindra party, while others continue to campaign against him.

While he is undoubtedly a product of the elite, he believes he can reach out to the common man.

But many Indonesians overlook these issues, drawn by his stirring vision of an Indonesia that can "stand on its own two feet".

A practiced public speaker, Mr Prabowo treats the stage as his tool, in a pompous show of his mass support.

At a huge rally in Jakarta in March,for example, he entered the packed 80,000-capacity Bung Karno stadium riding Prodigio, his favourite 18-year-old Portuguese horse, after landing in a helicopter nearby.

Fiercely protective of this horse, and the other animals he keeps at his hilltop ranch outside Jakarta, he has not used it at any subsequent rallies, worried that it will be upset by the boisterous crowds.

But he is not so fearful himself, often ending speeches by diving into the crowd like an exuberant rock singer.

"The crowd is hysterical," he said after the Semarang rally, pointing to his arm: "Look at these scratches...the elder women are very strong..they are so enthusiastic."

"I think why I resonate with them is that what I am talking is what they are feeling inside; they feel that they are not part of a process, that they don't have any say," he says.

"They feel poor - no hope, no pride."

What he does not say is how he developed his oratorical style over many years, with political advisers from Indonesia and the United States. They helped him understand how to rouse the crowd and win votes by appealing to people's sense of lost dignity, in a country beset by corruption and poverty despite the recent economic boom.

A quick learner, his temper is also legendary. Having fought in the jungles of Papua and Aceh and experienced the bitter ups and downs of Indonesian politics, he does not suffer fools.

His brother Mr Hashim Djojohadikusumo says his older brother was often critical of his teachers, some of whom he thought were "goblok" or stupid".

Still seen as a general by those around him, he commands absolute loyalty from the young group of aides who follow him everywhere.

When he pauses for more than a few seconds during speeches, his aides rush to bring him a wet towel, a bottle of water or a cup of coffee.

With three days left to the polls, he feels that the wind is behind him.

"It's the last sprint. So anything can happen but we are strong. We feel a resurgence," he said at a forum on Monday last week..

Even back then on that plane to Semarang, when he was still way behind in the polls and many had written him off, he was already confident.

Asked what he would do if he did not win?

"Losing is not an option," is his dead-certain reply.


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.