Indonesia Commando Turns Rancher in Would-Be Path to Leader

Prabowo Subianto, a former general turned presidential candidate, is raising his own herd of cattle as he seeks to woo Indonesia’s farmers with a promise to make them the centerpiece of a push to revitalize the economy.

Prabowo, 62, would build a “people economy” and boost funding tenfold for the agriculture that 70 percent of Indonesians depend on for a living, he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV Indonesia at his ranch in Sentul, near the capital Jakarta, on March 19. The former chief of the army’s special forces wants to cut dependence on food imports and foster “Indonesian nationalism.”

An election in July for the presidency of the world’s third-biggest democracy is shaping up as a contest of personalities with Prabowo, leading the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, pledging to limit exports of natural resources. Golkar party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, another candidate, has also sought to tap a protectionist mood as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy seeks to cut dependence on imports.

Prabowo trails Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo in popularity, according to a survey by Indikator Politik Indonesia, with Widodo announcing his candidacy on March 14 for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P. Gerindra needs to win at least 20 percent of seats in an April parliamentary vote, more than polls now forecast, or under election rules he must form a coalition in order to stand for president.

“Of course I will try to work with all sides,” Prabowo said. “I am sure there are good people in every party, why can’t we bring these good people together to work for the good of the nation?”

April Threshold

Gerindra is unlikely to make the threshold in April, which means Prabowo will need to form an alliance to stand for the presidency, according to Mike Jakeman, a London-based analyst on Indonesia for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“This would be a messy process that would leave him indebted to multiple masters, should he eventually win out,” Jakeman said by e-mail March 21.

Indikator Politik surveyed 1,720 people from Jan. 18-Feb. 2. It found Widodo would win 41.5 percent of the vote, followed by Prabowo with 16.3 percent. Respondents scored Prabowo, once a son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, highest as a candidate who was firm and authoritative.

Prabowo, the chairman of the Indonesia Farmers Association, said the nation needed to help farmers by giving them the right technology and techniques for seeds, irrigation and storage to be competitive. While this could take 10 years to achieve, a lack of action would see children avoid farming as they view it as a road to poverty, he said. Prabowo would lift spending on agriculture to 10 percent of the budget, from 1 percent now.

75 Cows

“I see two sides of Indonesia, one that’s living in the 21st century, the other, in the villages who are left behind,” he said. “There needs to be affirmative action.”

Prabowo’s own farm has 75 cows, something he called an experiment in boosting milk output, even as he said the ranch should be at a higher altitude to be cooler for the animals.

“We must be self-sufficient especially when it comes to milk, it’s protein for our nation and our children don’t drink enough milk,” he said. “We must have a dream of a white revolution so I expect all kids to drink milk.”

Indonesia relies on Australia for imports of fresh milk, beef and wheat, with demand for the goods rising from an emerging middle class. Indonesia, which has a policy of self-sufficiency in rice, has also been forced to import the staple grain at times in recent years from Thailand and Vietnam. The country imports soy for tofu, a common protein source, from the U.S.

Land, Water

Former trade minister Gita Wirjawan, also seeking to run for president, backtracked last year on rules restricting imports of beef and soybeans after prices soared.

The successor to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another ex-general who has to step down this year after a decade in power, will inherit an economy growing at its slowest in four years and a persistent trade deficit that turned the rupiah into Asia’s worst-performing currency last year.

Prabowo said a fundamental problem was the management of the archipelago’s resources, including land and water. Indonesian lawmakers passed a trade bill in February that enables the government to restrict exports and imports to protect local industries, a move that followed a Jan. 12 ban on exports of raw mineral ores such as nickel and bauxite.

“The land is Indonesia’s but we let it be controlled by parties who are taking it,” he said.

‘Hammer Out’

Prabowo said he had no plan to nationalize foreign company assets and wanted to accommodate all interests. Still, he would “hammer out” terms with foreign investors, he wrote in the Jakarta Post newspaper on Jan. 28. The current government is seeking to renegotiate tax and royalty terms with miners such as Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc.

Prabowo has previously been denied a visa to enter the U.S. for his involvement in violence following Suharto’s fall in 1998, when he was fired from the military for his role in the abduction of pro-democracy activists. Corruption deprives government coffers of billions of dollars in revenue, Human Rights Watch said in a 2013 report on Indonesia.

On foreign policy, Prabowo said Indonesia should be friendly to both Japan and China, who are pushing for influence in the region, and that should not conflict with Indonesia itself becoming “proud.”

Nationalism is good,” he said. “Japan is nationalist, China is nationalist, America is nationalist. They are allowed to” be. “I want to boost Indonesia’s nationalism, to tell the Indonesian people, hey Indonesians you are not a nation of losers.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.