Indonesia's Prabowo Turns Ambassador

Indonesian presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto has just seven months to convincingly reinvent his image as a human rights defender before the 2014 primary election next May.

In keeping with his portrayal as diplomatic and benevolent, Prabowo recently visited a maid on Malaysia's death row who was accused of murdering her employer, and has promised to assist her during upcoming court proceedings. He is seeking clemency for the death penalty, the first and only Indonesian official or immigration spokesman to visit Wilfrida, a 17 year old who it is believed was trafficked at age 12 to work in the neighboring country.

Despite his assisting a forgotten and otherwise ignored migrant worker, the case demonstrates the level of public relations Prabowo is engaging in to rework his image as not only a diplomat, but also to remind people that he is an established elite, impeccably politically connected and influential. He was once married to one of the late strongman's daughters, Siti Haryadi.

Political analysts say that by all accounts Prabowo is a figure of contradictions, an engaging, even charming figure with real programs and plans for the future of Indonesia - with an explosive temper. Prabowo says he is pro-strengthening government and says Indonesia needs a strong government prepared to intervene in lacklustre sections of the economy.

He is also circumspect about foreign investment and market forces although some consider him likely to turn away from the economic nationalism of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's economic czar, Hatta Rajasa, which has been crippling the economy by discouraging foreign participation in the economy.

But many Indonesians are wary of the former general and head of the country's Kopassus Special Forces unit, who courted controversy with such antics as famously bursting into the presidential palace with a firearm and demanding to see then-President B.J.Habibie, allegedly in an attempted coup. He denies an attempt at a takeover, but frankly admits to the fact that if he actually wanted to take power by force he could have.

Prabowo can no longer afford to be seen as impulsive and violent, instead using cases like Wilfrida's to project a personable social justice conscience while keeping with his military and political reputation of uncompromising authority and command. He rates high in presidential election popularity polls.

Banned from entering the US because of alleged involvement in human rights abuses, Prabowo was discharged from the army in 1998 after Suharto fell. He is accused of kidnapping, human rights abuses, and an attempted coup. He spent time in self-exile in Jordan, before emerging and transforming himself politically from a figure of loathing into an apparently strong and sincere advocate for social justice and economic nationalism.

Ten years ago, few would have thought Prabowo would manage such a public relations conjuring trick. He was accused of instigating violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters during the Suharto regime and during the conflict in East Timor and Papua, but he was never charged and has always maintained the allegations were rumors devised for political damage.

To questions why Indonesians would contemplate electing a man as their democratic leader who fought against reformation and how a man accused of human rights abuses could end up running for president, some cite disenchantment with other nominees, although Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta who was elected last year, ironically with Prabowo's help, is now the decided front-runner.

Nonetheless, a large segment of the Indonesian population appear prepared to overlook a controversial history and promote someone to the highest office who once was utterly opposed to democracy.

Part of the reason, political analysts say, is that he is running a well-oiled political machine that is organizing deep into the kampungs, or rural villages, with a message of reform in a country disappointed with the retreat of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from his reformasi mantra and the near collapse of the president's Democratic Party into a morass of corruption and indictments.

But also he appears to be increasingly appealing to the Chinese business community that once feared him for his role the 1999 Chinatown riots and rapes because of his business acumen and because he reportedly wants to put growing violent Islamic fringe organizations such as the FPI or Islamic Defenders Front back into the box from which they have escaped because of a police force that regards them as a subterranean adjunct to the force.

Human rights accountability and the processes of resolving cases of atrocity have already been partly subsumed by Prabowo's rise to leadership in a mainstream party, albeit a small one. Human rights abusers in Indonesia have enjoyed evasion from justice and full exposure. Only recently a film appeared that re-enacts the brutality of reformation. "Jagal" (Butcher), a banned film, highlights the military's role in organised mass killings, and has reignited public discussion about accountability and the need for apologies and reparation.

Certainly there would be little chance of a national conversation about the sins of that era should Prabowo win. His appeal, according to University of Western Australia Professor Krishna Sen, is similar to that of Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra as he has a large following among the rural and undereducated classes although educated urbanites are sceptical.

Despite his rhetoric about commitment to secularism and the protection of minority religious groups, the poor, and farmers, the already fragile state of democracy in Indonesia could go into recession under a leader with autocratic tendencies. Since 2007 Indonesia has not improved its democratic index and there is resistance to democratization from elites within the executive, judiciary, military, and business.

Prabowo's biggest problem is that his Gerindra Party purportedly represents 15 million voters, a figure some analysts consider to be high, and in order to actually run for the presidency he must tie himself to a coalition party to fulfil a constitutional requirement that parties representing 20 percent of the electorate nominate him for the presidency.

Party aides have said they hope that coalition partner would be the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which Gerindra paired with in 2010 elections with Prabowo as vice presidential candidate. But others say PDI-P is likely to side with Jokowi. Businessman Aburizal Bakrie heads Golkar, the other big party. Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan is likely to be the candidate of SBY's Democratic Party.

Prabowo's imnage is scheduled for serious varnish by the time the elections roll around, as Prabowo's billionaire older brother Hashim has commissioned a New York advertising agency to polish his image and has also donated money to a US think tanks in an attempt to ensure he is not completely smeared by bad press in the US.

A Prabowo win would mean that in order to protect its interests and relationship with Indonesia, Australia would be faced with negotiating a higher level of accommodation, ethically and politically, to a potentially more belligerent and nationalist neighbor.

Should Prabowo get the job, a critical juncture will emerge for Australia Indonesia relations, with the possibility that the two nationalist leaders will generate tense diplomatic situations over regional issues that infringe on sovereignty, such as the Abbott government's already controversial asylum seeker policies.

Between now and then, Prabowo's image control will be in overdrive, seeking to saturate the media with alternate images of a diplomat rather than a soldier.