‘Don’t teach me democracy!’: an uneasy audience with Indonesia’s Prabowo
KONFRONTASI-Prabowo Subianto is not the type of man you want to inadvertently enrage – especially not while seated directly across from him in his private jet, flying thousands of feet above the Java Sea.
The special forces commander-turned-Indonesian presidential candidate is stretching out his legs, and drinking a coffee in a leather seat on his private plane after a huge rally in the city of Palembang in South Sumatra.
Weary of the media after he says he has been “bitten, not once but hundreds of times” by the foreign press, Prabowo tolerates questions from the Guardian, up to a point.
After asking a series of questions about whether he is playing identity politics, cosying up to Islamist hardliners for political gain, an exasperated Prabowo unleashes a tirade.
“I am not somebody who is afraid of white people,” he thunders, slamming a saucer down onto the polished wooden table in front of him.
“Don’t come and teach me democracy! Don’t teach me politics of identity, I know! I was a commander, I had Christian soldiers, Hindu soldiers, die under my command. You think I am going to betray them?”
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto on his private jet.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto on his private jet.
It’s less than a week before the Indonesian election on 17 April, a race that pits incumbent president Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, against Prabowo, a rematch of the bitterly divisive 2014 election, and emotions are running high.
In the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, the election campaign has unfolded in a religiously charged environment, with both candidates attempting to appeal to an increasingly conservative base.
Prabowo’s campaign stops are dotted with visible Islamic symbols and he has courted hardline groups, reportedly signing a deal to promote a conservative-Islamist agenda if he wins.
“We must be a nation that can stand up for ourselves”
Granted rare access to the former general, the Guardian followed Prabowo for a day, flying from the Indonesian capital to Palembang, where he delivered a colourful oration to a sea of adoring fans.
Dressed in a cowboy hat and khaki shirt he was in his element on stage, moving from railing against the “corrupt elite” (one of his favourite topics) to his mock impersonations of “lying” politicians, to his fiery brand of nationalism.
“We must be a nation that can stand up for ourselves, or else our riches will keep being stolen!” he roars in a gravelly voice. “True?” The crowd goes wild. “Yes!” they scream back in unison.
Behind the scenes Prabowo’s inner circle seems pumped. “It wasn’t like this five years ago,” says Aryo Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s nephew and a legislator for his uncle’s Gerindra political party in the car en route to the airport, “Look at the enthusiasm on the streets. People are just stopping their cars to take a photo of him.”
Back on the plane, Prabowo reflects on the strong turnout, of women screaming his name and supporters thrusting crumpled notes of rupiah into his hand.
“They are giving me money, which for them is maybe one day earnings,” he says, “I am very touched. They want to hold me, they want to touch me, what am I? I am just a normal person and yet they give me so much hope.”
Behind him Prabowo’s entourage is arranging an armful of clean safari shirts and a bag of matching cowboy hats, as his bodyguards change out of their rain soaked shirts, and tuck into hamburgers on a beige leather lounge.
“All of my rallies are like that,” continues Prabowo, as he sips from an elegant, gold-handled teacup, “That’s why I tell you that maybe it’s time to invite the foreign journalists to go and see for themselves because if you go through the Jakarta elite you will not get a real picture.”
Clever, charismatic … and erratic
Less than a week before the presidential election, most credible polls show Jokowi with a double-digit lead, but the Prabowo camp claims their internal polling shows the former general is in front, although they have declined to release the details.
“I feel very strong,” says Prabowo, “If the powers that be want to cheat massively they will be going against the will of the people.”
A fervent nationalist, Prabowo says he will fight for a “better deal for Indonesia”, talking frequently about ensuring food self sufficiency, creating a strong manufacturing base, and bringing down prices of staple foods and electricity. “He is disgusted,” he says, with Indonesia’s perceived economic woes, noting that Jakarta is not even able to provide clean water to its most needy, and that corruption is chronic.
Educated abroad, including in London, Prabowo is the son of Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a noted economist, and the ex son-in-law of Indonesia’s longtime autocratic ruler, Suharto. As a general Prabowo was dismissed from the military over allegations he was involved in the kidnapping and torture of pro-democracy activists in 1998, a claim he has always denied.
In person, Prabowo exudes a complex kind of swagger, he is clever, charismatic and also, a bit erratic.
Upon meeting the Guardian before takeoff, Prabowo, in a faux British accent playfully pumps his fist in air saying “The Manchester Guardian” in reference to this organisation’s origins.
Over the course of the day conversation spans the work of Athenian historian Thucydides, the trial of Mexican drug dealer El Chapo, the proper etiquette of Polo, and one of his boyhood heroes, Robin Hood.
Jetting about the country advocating the rights of farmers to fishermen to housewives, Prabowo is aware of how it looks.
“I’m part of the one percent,” he readily admits, “I don’t need to be here.”
But his mind seems to be dominated by the current state of Indonesia – a country he believes has devolved into an economic “basketcase” and global laughing stock – and he says he feels compelled to run.
Then there is his temper, which Indonesia has seen flashes of before. Last week during a campaign event Prabowo banged his hand so hard on a lectern it made the news.
Prabowo later apologized to the Guardian for his outburst, saying he was tired, but not before he finished making his point.
Prabowo, ever the soldier, claimed he would defend Indonesia’s founding principles of religious diversity to the “last drop of his blood”.
However, Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch says Prabowo’s claims he backs pluralism are undermined by decisions he made as a general. Harsono points to reports that in 1997-8 he rejected the promotion of a Balinese Hindu, and Indonesian Christian officer on religious grounds.
However, Prabowo also argues that, unlike the current president, he didn’t choose an Islamic cleric as a vice presidential running mate.
While Jokowi chose Ma’ruf Amin, a 76-year-old senior and deeply conservative Islamic cleric, Prabowo chose Sandiaga Uno, a 49-year-old former investment banker.
“Who had the guts to not accede to the demands of the clerics?” he exclaims, “Why don’t you write that I had the courage to go against them! No one writes about that!”