Undercurrents in Indonesia's presidential tussle

Indonesian presidential candidates Joko Widodo (left) and Prabowo Subianto after Sunday's presidential debate. The latter came out with all guns blazing on Sunday in a complete turnaround.
Indonesian presidential candidates Joko Widodo (left) and Prabowo Subianto after Sunday's presidential debate. The latter came out with all guns blazing on Sunday in a complete turnaround.PHOTO: REUTERS

As befits the general, Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) contender Prabowo Subianto came out with all guns blazing in Sunday's second presidential debate in a complete turnaround from his strangely nervous performance a fortnight before.

This time, without the reassuring presence of running mate Jusuf Kalla, Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P) rival Joko Widodo was the nervous one at times as the pair traded differing visions on the economy.

But a little fashion advice for Mr Prabowo: lose the white safari jacket. Looking like a puffier version of founding president Sukarno, as he appears to be doing, doesn't work. This is 2014 and he is appealing to the youngest electorate in the country's history.

The same could be said about the T-shirt makers in Yogyakarta and Solo who, by dressing Mr Joko's image in an Australian army greatcoat, are trying to picture him as another General Sudirman, the young hero of the independence struggle.

Habitually casual, Mr Joko doesn't look all that comfortable in the dark suit he wears for the debates. Before the first encounter it took a while to persuade him not to wear his trademark red and blue checked shirt. His minders said he had to look presidential.

It is not the first time Mr Prabowo can be faulted for a lack of dress sense.

When the polo-playing enthusiast rode a horse into the national stadium for a pre-legislative election rally last March, only one figure came to mind: Benito Mussolini.

Kitted out in jodhpurs and peci (Muslim cap), the comparison with a famous picture of a similarly mounted Italian dictator was so striking, even Gadja Mada University international affairs professor Mochtar Masud had exactly the same reaction.

Of course, most Indonesian voters have probably never heard of Il Duce and might even have been impressed at seeing Mr Prabowo spurring his well-trained chestnut past massed ranks of red-bereted followers.

But it certainly jarred with some of his former superiors, who are now trotting out the dirt on the former Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) commander - an offensive so predictable it is surprising how ill-prepared Mr Prabowo has been to counter it.

When the wily Mr Kalla uncorked a question about his human rights record during the opening debate, Mr Prabowo scrambled to respond, raising his voice in the process but managing to keep a rein on his notoriously hot temper. He might be excused for having a little stage fright. Seated in front of him were former army chief Hadi Siswoyo Soebagyo and a cabal of other retired generals, including Luhut Panjaitan, Fachrul Razi, Suaidi Marasabessy, Sutioso and Hendropriyono.

None has warm and fuzzy feelings towards Mr Prabowo from their days in the military when then president Suharto's son-in- law made a stable of enemies among his fellow officers by doing things his way and ignoring the chain of command.

So, was it intimidation? "We were in the line of fire," smiles Mr Panjaitan, 66, who was at one point Mr Prabowo's commanding officer in the Special Forces and has been part of the team coaching Mr Joko for the debates. "He couldn't avoid seeing us."

In fact, Mr Soebagyo was the chairman of the Officers Honour Council which cashiered Mr Prabowo in August 1998 after he lost out in a power struggle with Mr Wiranto; the armed forces chief later self-servingly claimed to have saved the nation for democracy.

Aceh-born Mr Razi, a former deputy armed forces chief, had also sat in judgment on Mr Prabowo in the three-day, closed-door court martial, as did current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the then chief of staff for social and political affairs.

Only recently has the secret findings of the seven-man honour council surfaced on the Internet, raising new questions - as the leak was designed to do - about the Gerindra leader's suitability for Indonesia's highest post.

What makes the three-page judgment so interesting is that the court martial focused not only on the role of Mr Prabowo's so- called Team Mawar in the kidnapping and torturing of 23 activists in 1997-98, but also disciplinary issues going back a decade.

Some of those actions involved operations in Aceh and East Timor, but others dwelt on the dramatic rescue of foreign botanists seized by Papuan rebels in 1996, and on Special Forces soldiers being assigned to guard Suharto on a visit to Canada in 1997.

Mr Prabowo claims the abduction of the activists, some belonging to the radical People's Democratic Party, was done on the orders of Suharto himself. Human rights investigators argue that the president only wanted information about them.

If true, Mr Prabowo and other officers appear to have exceeded their instructions, not an unusual occurrence given the often vague way Suharto issued directives. After all, the young men were hardly a threat to national security.

Mr Prabowo took responsibility for the nine detainees held for up to eight weeks at a Special Forces jail in South Jakarta, including two he made peace with only a year later and who joined the newly formed Gerindra for the 2004 legislative elections.

All nine were subsequently accounted for and are actually the only victims named in the findings. But of the other 14, snatched from their homes and off the streets by a different military unit, one was found dead and the other 13 have never been found.

Who ordered their deaths and why remains a mystery. Most stories, from both military sources and crewmen aboard the boats, suggest they were killed and buried in cement-filled drums in waters off the Thousand Island chain, north of Jakarta.

Two Team Mawar officers - a colonel and a major - were dismissed from service and 11 other soldiers were jailed for one to two years.

But despite talk of waiting for new evidence, Mr Prabowo was never brought to trial.

"He knows what will happen if he starts telling what he knows," says Mr Marzuki Darusman, former head of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission and part of the fact-finding team that investigated the events of 1998. "It would go in all directions."

Clearly, he should not get all the blame. But as he has done all along, Mr Prabowo sticks to the same script.

"I am a former soldier who did his duty as best as I could," he told the April 2 audience. "Aside from that, it's up to the judgment of my superiors."

If he doesn't feel compelled to change that message, then perhaps he will change his attire. In his case, white doesn't work.