Larger-than-life former general back in the saddle

Larger-than-life former general back in the saddle

Old warriors like Gerindra founder and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto do not always ride off into the sunset.

The former general recently galloped back into the spotlight on one of his favourite Portuguese horses in a rally at Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno stadium and set tongues wagging all across Indonesia.

The 62-year-old wore knee-high, brown riding boots and had an antique keris in his holster as he rode into the old venue - after arriving in a helicopter and an open-top jeep - flanked by several marching bands, some in imitation tiger skin costumes, to inspect a platoon of men from his party's youth group.

The rally was orchestrated to project an image of might; a reflection of the larger-than-life man who wears his military background like a badge of honour

With a black songkok on his head and speaking into four vintage-silver microphones, he seemed to be trying to tap into the current wave of nostalgia for founding President Sukarno, who was known for his fiery speeches.

Indeed, his dramatic gestures were a stark contrast to the low-key approach of his rival, popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), who is known for strolling through the markets and kampungs to mingle with voters.

Yet, Mr Prabowo's rally seemed fitting for a man who once led 34 army battalions and now aspires to lead a nation of 250 million.

"It's time for a firm president to lead us, strong enough to stand up to corruption and fight for the small people," said rallygoer Yuniarti.

Since last year, Mr Prabowo has been pledging to reform agriculture, create more jobs and narrow the income gap between the rich and the poor - promises that resonate with many in a nation where farming remains a mainstay.

His rousing call to shrink imports and tirades against foreigners controlling natural resources have fuelled concerns that he opposes foreign investment.

"I am not anti-foreigner, but I feel it is time for Indonesia, as the host, to own its assets, not become a spectator in its own country," he had said.

His vision for economic reform is in the Six-Point Action Plan to Transform a Nation launched by Gerindra last July, ahead of the platforms of other political parties.

After failing to get the nod as Golkar's presidential nominee in 2004, Mr Prabowo started Gerindra in 2008. The next year the new party won 4.5 per cent of the popular vote, giving it 26 seats in the outgoing Parliament.

At that time in 2009, Mr Prabowo ran as a vice-presidential hopeful to PDI-P chair Megawati Sukarnoputri. But last month she named Mr Joko as her party's presidential candidate, angering Mr Prabowo. He accused her of breaking a 2009 pact to make him the party's presidential pick this round.

Mr Prabowo has made no secret of his disappointment and railed against unnamed betrayers at his Jakarta rally. "If you were in my shoes, can you imagine how I feel?" he had said recently.

This time, Gerindra is tipped to do much better, thanks to Mr Prabowo's surging popularity

Many members of the elite that once shunned him now appear to back him. Religious leaders, retired generals and academics are publicly pledging their support.

Like many of them, Mr Prabowo hails from an influential family. His grandfather, Mr Margono Djojohadikusomo, founded Bank Negara Indonesia and served on the committee that prepared Indonesia for independence. His father, Mr Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, served in both the Sukarno and Suharto-era Cabinets.

Mr Prabowo had also been married at one time to a daughter of former President Suharto, Ms Siti Hediati Haryadi or Titiek, but they have divorced. Their only son, 30, is a fashion designer based in Europe.

Having had his early education in Singapore and later going off to the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Prabowo is also familiar with Indonesia's neighbours.

While he is now busy fronting the Gerindra show, his younger brother - tycoon and key party backer Hashim Djojohadikusomo. - has been quietly lobbying the United States to lift a travel ban on Mr Prabowo.

The ban stems from an admission by him that, as the former special forces (Kopassus) commander, Mr Prabowo played a role in the abduction of 24 pro-democracy activists in 1998. Cynics note that 13 who went missing under his watch are still unaccounted for.

A military honorary council tribunal found Mr Prabowo guilty of ordering his subordinates in the Mawar (Rose) Task Force to abduct the activists and he was forced to retire eight years ahead of the mandatory retirement age of 55.

"God willing, it's done. Let history speak for itself. Everyone has his own version," said Mr Prabowo in 2009, in an indication that this episode had surfaced before and continues to dog him in this campaign too.

Mr Prabowo is also noted for having a temper - one so legendary that rumour has it that anyone meeting him should put away their mobile phones in case he smashes them in a sudden fit of rage. When asked whether that was true, Tempo news magazine reported him as replying: "In the biographies of CEOs and generals, don't they ever get angry?"

But Mr Prabowo also has a soft side - a love for animals. At a ranch at his sprawling mansion tucked away in the hills of Bogor are 75 cows, 18 thoroughbred Portuguese horses, a german shepherd named Baron and even a pet falcon named Elly. His love of his horses, some of which he rides to practise his equestrian skills, is obvious to anyone who has seen him stroking them tenderly.

"His charisma is reminiscent of Sukarno and he can fill a stadium," said political analyst Paul Rowland. "In Indonesia, there is a market for such a leader with a militaristic style, and Mr Prabowo and his Gerindra party have been able to capture that 'middle' segment that has now abandoned Democratic Party."

Mr Prabowo once told foreign journalists: "I'm at peace with myself and proud of my record… I come from a long line of Indonesian patriots, so I am confident that the Indonesian people will decide."

This article was published on April 3 in The Straits Times.

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