In the precinct of spin, the legion of public relations experts, analysts and advisors around former Gen. Prabowo Subianto seemed to have a pretty clear message the past few weeks: The one-time Suharto-era officer locked in an uphill battle for president against Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has his feet back under him, the momentum is shifting and the race is narrowing.
“It’s closed to five points,” said one Prabowo operative, citing an unnamed poll before a campaign event last week. “It’s basically tied.”
Meanwhile, in the online corridors of Facebook and Twitter, doubts were being sown about Prabowo’s opponent in anonymous postings. Jokowi is inexperienced and incompetent, he is half-Chinese, he may not even be a Muslim. The mutterings were having some effect; credible polls showed Joko’s lead shrinking, from 17 points or so in April to as low as 11 points in recent surveys.
Prabowo wants to appear tough and above all competent as he fights down to the wire for a prize he has been seeking most of his life. He got a boost when the powerful Golkar Party joined his coalition in May. “Look at him,” said one of the general’s spin gurus. “Indonesia needs a real leader. That’s Prabowo.”
Then came this week’s presidential debate, the first of five scheduled to be held before the July 9 vote. It looked like the revenge of Jokowi.
When the two campaign teams took the stage on Monday evening for the two-hour session, the expectation was that Prabowo, with running mate Hatta Rajasa, would likely far outshine Joko and his running mate, former Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
Kalla is savvy enough and a seasoned politician with a strong track record, but Joko, the conventional wisdom went, is too humble and self-effacing to outduel a veteran of center stage like Prabowo. If things went according to script, the numbers would narrow precisely as the general’s advisors predicted they would; the governor just had to stumble.
Joko did not play along. His answers were clear and practical; he seemed to offer solutions on a range of topics, while Prabowo and Hatta seemed too general. Then Kalla took direct aim at Prabowo’s biggest vulnerability: his human rights record from the murky period in 1998 when the Indonesian economy fell apart and anti-Chinese riots claimed hundreds of lives. It was the general who stumbled.
Pressed on the kidnapping of political activists during the mounting turmoil of 1998, the one-time son-in-law of President Suharto said, “I am a former soldier who has done his duty as best as I can. Aside from that, it is up to the judgment of my superiors.”
“I am the toughest human-rights defender in the republic,” he added, his voice straining when Kalla kept hammering away at the issue.
For months, observers in Jakarta have wondered when Prabowo’s military service and human rights record would become a campaign issue. This was the week it came out forcefully in the open, and Prabowo will likely spend the rest of the campaign having to address the issue.
His campaign may have only itself to blame. One-time political allies, Prabowo and Joko would not ordinarily be disposed to hostility. But an advisor to Joko told me this week that the candidate was enraged by the anonymous attacks on his family and his religion. “He kept calm,” said the advisor. “He did not lash out. But he was seething and he wanted revenge. That was the debate strategy.”
Prabowo’s advisors contend he did nothing wrong in 1998, that he was honorably discharged from the service and that charges that he abused the rights of activists and others are baseless. The unpleasant fact remains, however, that the events of late 1998, which most seasoned observers put down to a battle for power between Prabowo, then head of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) and Gen. Wiranto, then chief of the armed forces, have never been fully explained. Wiranto prevailed, power passed to a civilian administration and Prabowo was shortly discharged from the army. No one was prosecuted for orchestrating the deadly riots, shooting demonstrators or creating mayhem.
Wiranto, himself tarred by numerous abuse charges, is now backing Jokowi, along with a number of retired generals who served with Prabowo.
As if on cue following the debate, a 1998 letter was leaked detailing the charges Prabowo’s superiors brought against him after Suharto stepped down. The document suggested Prabowo acted outside the chain of command in carrying out kidnappings of activists in early 1998 and that he consistently ignored orders from his commanding officers on various occasions.
The military tribunal hearing the case, which included Lt Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, now president, stopped short of punishing Prabowo and he was left with his rank and pension intact when he stepped down. The document, which senior retired officers have said is genuine, however, is sufficiently damaging to raise doubts about Prabowo’s behavior in command.
With as much as 30-40 percent of the electorate still undecided, according to several polls, putting Prabowo on the defensive seems a wise choice for the Joko camp. Following the debate, a pair of polls showed Jokowi getting a 2-3 point jump in the polls, according to the Jakarta Post.
Look for the more of the same in the next few weeks as Joko seeks to cement his lead. The more Prabowo is forced to look to the past, the more Joko seems like the man of the future.
Reposted from the Edge Review