In the evenings near Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s cattle farm in the mountains outside Jakarta, vendors with unsold food rely on the former army commando to buy their leftovers.
“He comes down with a car and when he passes by he rolls down the window and waves at us,” said Vina, who goes by one name and runs a small grocery store down the narrow road that leads to the farm’s gate. “He likes to joke. He says ‘don’t take life too seriously. You’ll get stressed out, and it makes you old, fast’.”
In the 16 years since dictator Suharto was ousted and his then son-in-law Prabowo fired from his post as lieutenant general amid accusations of human rights abuses, he’s recast himself as a successful businessman and farmer who pays for the schooling of village children. Even in the army Prabowo harbored political ambitions, say those who know him, and he’s run an efficient campaign portraying himself as a strong, capable leader, a message resonating with voters less concerned about his reputation for outbursts and not tolerating dissent.
Prabowo is in a neck-and-neck race for tomorrow’s vote, vying with Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, 53, to lead the world’s fourth-most populous nation, where 28.3 million people live on less than $1 a day. While Prabowo, 62, studied at prestigious schools abroad and amassed a personal fortune of about $150 million, he recently said he was “once poor,” without giving any details.
“Prabowo is the quintessential blue-blood -- his ancestry links him to the Javanese aristocracy, Sultan Agung and Prince Diponegoro and his own father was a multiple cabinet minister,” said Jeffrey Neilson, the Indonesia coordinator of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney. “His own rapid rise through the military occurred when he was President Suharto’s son-in-law. He believes he has a right to rule.”
Prabowo has seen a late slip in polls that still show a statistical dead heat. Widodo, who left for Mecca for a short pilgrimage days before the vote, led with 47.8 percent, against 44.2 percent for Prabowo in a survey last week by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia that had a 2 percentage point margin of error.
“He has a strong character, very strong,” said Agus Widjojo, a retired lieutenant general who knew Prabowo in the army. “Right from the beginning, since he was an active military officer, he had all the personal resources one would like to have to advance.”
“He was very strongly driven by his ambition to lead the country,” Widjojo said. “He knows how to take advantage of the condition of the voters to acquire votes.”
On the campaign trail Prabowo, who has never held elected office, has played off his army days, passing over a rally at a Jakarta stadium in a helicopter and entering in an open jeep followed by a marching band. He jumped on a horse to inspect lines of supporters dressed like paramilitaries with red berets.
“His great strength is his image for decisiveness,” said Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister from 2012 to 2013 and a former state premier. “Younger Indonesian voters, and they’re a big proportion of the electorate, would welcome that side of him without dwelling on the allegations that are attached to his career as a military man.”
Indonesia’s special forces unit Kopassus, which Prabowo led, has a checkered history, accused of rights violations in the former province of East Timor. Prabowo was accused of using a Red Cross-marked helicopter to rescue foreign scientists held hostage by Papuan rebels, killing villagers in Kraras in East Timor and sending Kopassus members to kidnap pro-democracy activists in 1998.
It was the latter that saw Prabowo fired from his post on the recommendation of a panel of senior officers, which included current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after Suharto was ejected in 1998.
Prabowo has denied any wrongdoing, saying his missions were sanctioned by superiors. Tony Hoesodo, who was in Kopassus and now works on Prabowo’s campaign, called the allegations “a waste of time” and part of a “black campaign” by supporters of Widodo, who is known as Jokowi.
Alongside the image of a leader who can address years of drift in Asia’s fifth-biggest economy, Prabowo has portrayed himself as a man with a common touch, to counter his opponent. A self-made businessman, Jokowi’s down-to-earth image propelled him from running a city in central Java to governing Jakarta.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV Indonesia on March 19, Prabowo said he would build a “people economy” and boost funding 10-fold for the agriculture that 70 percent of Indonesians depend on for a living.
“I understand poor people because I was once poor,” Prabowo told supporters in Jakarta on June 22. “I understand the feeling of not having money.”
He’s come under scrutiny on whether he’d seek to reverse post-Suharto reforms in the world’s third-biggest democracy, including the introduction of direct elections. On June 28 he questioned whether the political system fits the country’s culture, although he later said he believes in democracy.
“He was raised in a militaristic environment and he has never tried a leadership position in a civilian context,” said Hamdi Muluk, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia in Depok, West Java, who specializes in political psychology. There is “concern that things will go back to the New Order,” he said, a reference to the Suharto era, which was known as Orde Baru.
Prabowo is the eldest son of Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, an internationally educated economist and two-time finance minister who led efforts to send Indonesian students to study at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1950s. The students later became known as the “Berkeley mafia” of advisers to Suharto that crafted Indonesia’s economic-development strategy.
Prabowo’s family fled after his father took part in a rebellion in 1957 against founding president Sukarno.
Prabowo’s website describes him as a stubborn child -- taking after his mother -- who was drawn to the military at a young age, playing “war games” with friends in which he took the role of the hero. Prabowo spent a decade shuttling between Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Zurich and London, finishing high school two years early at The American School in London.
Prabowo’s family returned after Suharto, then a general, toppled Sukarno, and his father became minister of trade. In 1970 he entered the Military Academy for a career that would span 28 years.
“By the standards of Indonesian soldiers he’s more cosmopolitan,” said John McCarthy, Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia from 1997 to 2000 who met Prabowo before his 2001 divorce from Suharto’s daughter Siti Hediati Hariyadi. “He had a much more cosmopolitan, educational background.”
Prabowo advanced through the ranks, becoming a deputy commander at Kopassus in 1983, the year he married Suharto’s daughter, heading it by 1996, and becoming chief of the Strategic Reserve Command in 1998. In the 1980s and 1990s Kopassus was on the front lines battling separatists in the westernmost province of Aceh and easternmost province of Papua.
Those who served under Prabowo describe a commander who knew how to choose the right people for each mission and would fight alongside his soldiers when needed. They say he’d make soldiers take part in fighting sports to hone their toughness, yet encouraged them to pursue formal education.
“Prabowo is disciplined, and uses reward and punishment,” recalled Hoesodo. “If we’re right we’ll get a reward. If we’re wrong we get punishment.”
Hoesodo, who has known Prabowo since 1989, said stories of the former general’s temper are exaggerated.
“If people with high expectations see someone who is lacking, they certainly will not like that person,” he said. “If you deal with stupid people, I too would be like that.”
After leaving the military Prabowo lived in Jordan, Germany and Malaysia for several years. Returning to Indonesia, he became president of Nusantara Energy, which has interests in pulp, forestry, mining and commercial fishing. In 2004 he sought unsuccessfully to lead Golkar, Suharto’s former party, before co-founding Gerindra with the backing of his brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who has interests in mining and was worth $700 million in November, Forbes estimated.
Classified diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, written after Prabowo entered politics and made public by WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group, describe him as ambitious and unpredictable.
“To say that Prabowo has a controversial reputation is an understatement,” reads an August 2008 cable. “His direct links with gross human rights violations under Suharto make him a poison pill for many Indonesians,” reads one from November 2008. Prabowo has in the past been denied a visa to the U.S.
Mugiyanto, 40, was one of the activists kidnapped in Jakarta in 1998. He said he was tortured while held at Kopassus’ headquarters, memories that come rushing back every time he hears the crackle of a walkie talkie or when a car drives up behind him at night. Mugiyanto, who uses one name, says Prabowo, who he never met, is “heartless.”
“People seem lulled with the image and packaging,” he said. “He’s still the same Prabowo. What has changed? The only difference is that he’s not wearing a uniform.”
Prabowo’s style of leadership is “strong man politics,” said James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University.
“While he believes in the democratic process, he believes that a country like Indonesia is not ready for full democracy,” said Chin. “The contrast between the two of them is very very clear,” he said, referring to Prabowo and Jokowi. “One represents the old Indonesia, one represents the future.”
Those close to Prabowo say he simply wants to steer Indonesia toward better times. They describe a man who loves animals and is a voracious reader with an interest in books about history.
“Every time we have a family gathering, he is very jovial, full of jokes,” said Soedradjad Djiwandono, an ex-Bank Indonesia governor married to Prabowo’s sister Biantiningsih Miderawati. “Of course there’s always also a serious kind of discussion at the table during mealtime.”
Meilda Pandiangan, 36, a former anti-Suharto activist, has known Prabowo since 2009 and works on his campaign. She describes him as a “fatherly figure” who is misjudged.
The villagers near Prabowo’s farm an hour’s drive outside Jakarta say he often invites them for buffet dinners inside the compound. He pays for local children to go to school, for their breakfast and provides free health care.
When Prabowo hosts locals he tells them to lead a “simple life” and be “diligent,” said shopkeeper Vina.
“I don’t know Pak Jokowi, we have not eaten off his wealth but with Pak Prabowo we have already eaten off his wealth,” the mother of three said. “He’s nice and firm. Jokowi we only know from TV.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Tony Jordan