Ex-Generals Crowd Presidential Race

JAKARTA ~ Former generals with murky pasts vying for power in next week’s presidential elections are living proof, analysts say, that the ghost of general Suharto is still stalking Indonesian democracy.

Each of the three presidential tickets features a former general who earned his stripes under Suharto, who died last year, and benefited from the military’s ongoing place of privilege in Indonesian politics.

The incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was a senior commander under Suharto and has built an impressive political machine for himself since the dictator’s fall in 1998.

Yudhoyono’s background is relatively uncontroversial compared with ex-generals Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto, who are the running mates of Golkar party chief Jusuf Kalla and main opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, respectively.

Wiranto, Suharto’s last military chief, has been indicted by UN prosecutors for crimes against humanity after the independence referendum in East Timor in 1999. He denies any wrongdoing, calling himself a national hero instead.

Prabowo was Suharto’s son-in-law and the loyal commander of the dictator’s notorious special forces. He has been accused of abuses in East Timor and staging bloody riots in the last days of the Suharto regime in 1998.

He freely admits to kidnapping democracy activists and has even employed some of his victims as party loyalists in his election campaign.

“We are not a nation of servants; we have pride as a nation. We will see the rise of the Indonesian nation and not an inch of Indonesian territory will be taken (by foreigners),” he shouted during a recent campaign rally.

“We have to change our current system, which is detrimental to the Indonesian people’s interests. Our natural resources have been stolen” by foreigners, he added, finishing his speech with hoarse cries of “Independence!”

Loyal supporters enjoy the fist-waving nationalism of Prabowo’s stump speeches but opinion polls give Megawati – the mild-mannered “housewife” of Indonesian politics – little chance of winning next Wednesday’s election.

Some analysts however believe that Prabowo is merely honing his philosophy of national self-reliance and building his profile for another shot at power in 2014.

“I’m afraid he’ll become a controversial leader like Ahmadinejad in Iran or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela,” Airlangga University political analyst Daniel Sparingga said.

“Prabowo’s political concepts are against the existing global system, which relies on cooperation rather than a confrontation.”

Wiranto and Prabowo are relics from Suharto’s regime, living proof that while the military no longer rules Indonesia directly it is still immensely powerful.

“The military has been, for a long time, the most important institution in providing the nation’s leaders,” Sparingga said.

“In the political transition from dictatorship to democracy, civil institutions have not been able to provide national leaders. This makes the generals’ presence in the political arena inevitable.”

The almost total absence of any debate about human rights during the election campaign suggests that most Indonesians don’t care about the candidates’ records in this regard.

“I don’t want to know about that. Those things haven’t been proven,” 48-year-old Ikbal Mursyid said at an election rally on Tuesday when asked about Prabowo’s track record.

Prabowo would improve the lot of poor Indonesians and protect the country’s natural resources from foreigners, he said.

“I like his personality. He’s a charismatic man,” the shopkeeper from northern Jakarta said.

Another supporter, Sutina, said one of her relatives was killed in the 1998 riots allegedly masterminded by Prabowo, but she made no connection between those events 11 years ago and the man at the podium.

“I don’t understand whether he was responsible for that unrest,” the 40-year-old mother of two said.

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