JAKARTA–Five years ago, one of the most respected soldiers in U.S. history died too soon. Wayne Downing was a West Point graduate and four-star general who served two tours in Vietnam and came out of retirement after 9/11 to serve as anti-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush. Known as the father of the modern Rangers, Downing commanded America’s elite counter-terrorism teams in the 1990s and spent decades training foreign soldiers who came to Fort Bragg to learn about democracy. Not long before he died, I had lunch with General Downing at the White House. He told me that of all the foreign soldiers he ever trained, two stood out. One was Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the reigning King of Jordan. The other was Prabowo Subianto, the former commander of Indonesia’s special forces, and the current front-runner to be Indonesia’s next president in 2014.
Meeting with Prabowo, now a successful businessman, and his wealthy brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo here in this capital city, it’s not hard to see what General Downing saw. Prabowo is strategic and insightful, remarkably idealistic about his country and confident about its future. The scion of one of Indonesia’s most prestigious families, he grows passionate when he speaks about the nation’s income inequalities. He embodies a strength that is later captured well by Juwono Sudarsono, the respected former Minister of Defense, who tells me, “Prabowo leads the pack because he projects grit, firm leadership and decisiveness–which are seen to be lacking in our current leadership.”
That Prabowo is part of the conversation at all here is a testament to both his survival skills and the growing pains felt by this archipelago nation in its second decade of democracy. In some ways, he is the last person Westerners expected to be in a position of leadership–which has some wondering what his ascension means for Indonesia, and the future of Asia’s democracies.
Fourteen years ago, the former general was one of the most detested men in Indonesia. The then-son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, Prabowo was accused of leading deadly crackdowns against democracy activists in Suharto’s waning days, inciting riots that led to Suharto’s ouster and leading a coup attempt against his replacement. Although never charged with wrongdoing, Prabowo was found guilty of “exceeding orders” by a military ethics committee and dismissed by the army. For his alleged role in the riots, he was the first person in U.S. history to be denied a visa for violating the United Nations Convention Against Torture. He is anathema to human rights organizations in the West--but Indonesia may be willing to look past that history.
“Ruthlessness may disqualify you to be President in the West, but not for Indonesians,” says a well-known Western Ambassador. “He was a soldier and son-in-law that had done everything to keep Indonesia united. Many here feel that he was doing as a soldier what he had to do to keep the country together.”
A popular local artist agrees, saying that “Indonesians may be willing to forgive and forget. He seems to embody the kind of strength the country needs going forward.”
As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and its third-largest democracy, Indonesia is a young country rich in resources with a seemingly unlimited future. It is among the fastest-growing economies in the world. But it is also a nation of massive traffic jams, power shortages and high-profile corruption that, as journalist Eric Bellman says, “has voters reaching for a sure hand,” to move beyond what former Indonesian Coordinating Economic Minister Rizal Ramli describes as Indonesia’s “vicious cycle of false hope espoused by jaded elites that are long on talk of democracy, but fall remarkably short of action once they enter office.”
While President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono is credited with stabilizing the economy after the Asian financial crisis, he has been, as one venture capitalist calls him, “a ditherer,” who is helpless against Suharto-era cronies who still dominate key sectors of the economy. At a time when many Indonesians “yearn for a decisive figure akin to Suharto, Prabowo is seen as a return to a stronger, more straightforward Indonesia,” says a former high-ranking official in Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission. Or, as a well-known photojournalist puts it, Prabowo is seen as “a leader who isn’t going to sell us out–who will return our pride.”
Both Prabowo and SBY, as he’s known here, entered the military academy at the same time and became three-star generals within a month of each other. But while SBY commanded airborne teams, Prabowo commanded the nation’s most elite soldiers and was considered its most able soldier. It makes Prabowo much more credible when he says, as he does to me, “If you break the law in Indonesia today, you make a deal and get out of it–under me, you’re not going to be able to do that.”
But some also fear, as Juwono tells me, that “Probowo will become a Putin.” Indeed, as young democracies across Asia struggle to root out corruption in societies with little history of rule of law, some wonder if democracy is the answer. Lee Kuan Yew, the revered father of modern Singapore who Prabowo admires, famously believes that Western notions of democracy and civil liberties are out of step with the needs of Asian societies. For 52 years, Lee followed a simple philosophy: “If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” He wielded that belief with a soft authoritarianism to turn Singapore into the least-corrupt, most orderly nation on the planet.
The question for nascent democracies here is whether those same ends can be achieved through democratic means. Prabowo is visceral in his defense of democracy, insisting that he will not roll back the democratic reforms that Indonesia embraced after Suharto. “The problem isn’t the democratic system,” he tells me, “It’s the corruption. I’m still confident that we can get effective government through elections because the alternative is the worst.”
Also working in his favor is that Prabowo, who chairs the Indonesian Farmers Union in addition to running his popular Gerindra political party, has positioned himself as the voice of poor farmers. He argues that “sixty percent of our population live on agriculture and are allocated just three percent of the national budget”– arguing that the government should re-focus spending away from the cities and the elite. He promises to use “military-style efficiency” to get delayed infrastructure projects back on track. And, he has deep pockets: his brother is not just a near-billionaire who is financing his campaign, he is also a devout Christian–which is reassuring for some who fear an extremist Islamic takeover in Jakarta.
“People look to strong leaders despite their checkered past, provided they deliver,” says Juwono. “Think Ariel Sharon in Israel, who was elected despite leading abuses in Lebanon, (and then evacuated Israeli troops from Gaza); or Narendra Modi in India, who was responsible for the massacre of Muslims in 2002, but now delivers education and health services, in part to Muslims. When you are able to deliver, your past has no bearing on legitimacy.”
In 1995, Wayne Downing visited Prabowo in Indonesia. An old paratrooper, he wanted to do a high-altitude free-fall into Indonesia, which is rare for generals to do. Prabowo tried to convince him not to jump, but when Downing insisted, he jumped with him. “Sometimes,” he told me, “you just have to have the courage to jump.” Time will tell if Indonesians are so inclined.