BOGOR, Indonesia – Two policemen on horses were the sign that he was finally here. The odd procession of stallions and sports utility vehicles stopped outside a polling center, and out came former general Prabowo Subianto to vote for himself as Indonesia’s next president.
Why should this Southeast Asian nation’s 190 million voters choose him despite his checkered past as commander of the special forces under the Suharto dictatorship?
“Everybody needs a strong leader,” Prabowo told Rappler and then laughed. “You want a weak leader?”
In between waving to his throng of supporters in the town of Hambalang where his sprawling 4.8-hectare estate is located, Prabowo responded to questions about a key message he kept on repeating on the campaign trail: decisive leadership.
“Yes, of course. Leaders must make decisions. Even the manager of a football club must be decisive,” said the man who stayed up late on the eve of election day on Wednesday, July 9, to watch the World Cup.
To his critics, activists and international observers, Prabowo’s emphasis on strong leadership coupled with allegations of human rights abuses under the New Order regime of Suharto raised fears that his victory will cause an authoritarian reversal in a country hailed for its democratic success story.
For Prabowo, democracy as exercised in the polls is “very important.”
“We hope it’s going to be peaceful and clear mandate so we are very happy. I’m very happy today. You see the people are very enthusiastic,” he said.
Known as the establishment candidate, Prabowo is the former son-in-law of dictator Suharto and comes from a family with deep ties in politics and business. He was dismissed from the military in 1998 in relation to the kidnapping of student activists in the unrest that led to Suharto’s downfall.
Yet the villagers who lined up hours early in Hambalang, have a different view of the man.
“Bapak Prabowo made my grandson go to school so he was able to graduate from college. He cares for the small people. I am voting for him as a way of giving thanks,” said 62-year-old housewife Aisyah.
Even young voters here see Prabowo not as a human rights abuser but as patron.
“Prabowo has a vision and mission for labor,” said 22-year-old Zulkarnaen, who voted for Prabowo.
“Prabowo protects the rights of labors, and gives salaries and a better life.”
A first time voter, Zulkarnaen admired the bombastic, strongman image Prabowo portrayed in the campaign, complete with helicopter and horse grand entrances and fifties microphones.
“I want Prabowo to win. He could be a leader like Sukarno,” he said, referring to Indonesia’s revered founding father, whom Prabowo has been trying to channel.
The laborer said Prabowo’s rival, Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo did not get much support in Prabowo’s stronghold.
Prabowo’s supporters echo Prabowo’s criticism of the candidate he supported in the race for Jakarta governor in 2012.
“Jokowi should not win because he should stay as governor. He should finish his term. He broke his promise,” said Zulkarnaen while flashing Prabowo’s number one sign.
‘We should move on’
To Prabowo’s supporters, his critics should stop bringing up his human rights abuses.
“Let it go,” was the simple response of 26-year-old housewife Siti Robiah about the issue.
Prabowo thinks along the same lines.
After voting, he said, “I think it’s a very important day. It’s a happy day. People are happy so I’m also happy. If the people are happy, I’m happy.” – Rappler.com