Dark horse all set for the last sprint

Dark horse all set for the last sprint

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto held a mass prayer session at a house in central Jakarta yesterday, as he ended a gruelling month of travel across the vast archipelago to win over voters.

Surveys show that after trailing by nearly 30 percentage points in March, he is now within a hair's breadth of his only rival, front runner Joko Widodo.

On a private jet from Jakarta to one of those rallies earlier in his campaign in the Central Java city of Semarang that attracted 10,000, Mr Prabowo sipped a soda and spoke of a campaign that has obviously proved successful. "I don't really prepare, I go with the flow," he told The Sunday Times, sounding self-assured and full of energy.

The 62-year-old former special forces general has been driven by a sense of destiny.

"We are a proud family. We were taught that our family always served the country, served the people, served the society," he said during the 40-minute flight.

Political discussions are common at the dinner table of his family, which traces its Javanese roots to battles against the Dutch.

"Life is always a struggle between good and evil," said Mr Prabowo. "That had a very big influence on me." It was the death of two uncles on the same day in January 1946, during the war of independence, that inspired Mr Prabowo to join the military.

"Military service is the highest sacrifice, because you put your life at the service of the country, and if your country asks for you to give your life, you must give it," he said.

Mr Prabowo rose rapidly to become former president Suharto's most trusted general before his fall from grace in 1998.

After being dismissed from the military for his role in the kidnapping of democracy activists when Mr Suharto was ousted, he exiled himself to Jordan.

Mr Prabowo returned in 2002 but his sense of injustice about the episode and his family history are not the only factors driving his quest for the highest office.

Add to that the racial slurs he faced as the only Asian in class when studying in international schools in Switzerland, Hong Kong and Britain. "There was this burning conviction that I must prove that Indonesians are not stupid monkeys," said the man whose campaign has fashioned him as the nation's saviour, with banners and posters saying "Selamatkan Indonesia (Save Indonesia)".

"We want to be a modern country. We want to be equal with the West but we admired the West... and yet we felt this racism," he said while tucking into a Big Mac.

"I think this is influenced by people like Dr Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew - the desire that we are not third-class humans, but we can also be modern, we can compete," he said, conveying his admiration for the former prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore, respectively.

Indeed, one common theme Mr Prabowo uses to whip up the crowd is to highlight how "foreigners are stealing our national resources".

"We are brought up to be too hospitable, and don't realise our wealth is being stolen... they say Indonesians are stupid, our leaders can be bought," he shouted at a rally in Makassar on June 17.

But when meeting foreign investors and diplomats, he tells them that international capital is crucial for Indonesia's development.

Thus, Mr Prabowo is a man of contradictions. Although his family went into exile after rebelling against Sukarno in 1957, he self-consciously tries to mimic the rhetorical style of Indonesia's founding president.

While he is a product of the elite, he believes he can reach out to the common man. In fact, many Indonesians are drawn by his stirring vision of an Indonesia that can "stand on its own two feet".

Even on that plane to Semarang, when he was still way behind in the polls and many had written him off, he was already confident. He said: "Losing is not an option."

This article was first published on JULY 6, 2014.
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