Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets his supporters after registering his candidacy for 2019 elections in front of General Elections Commission (KPU) office, Jakarta, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho
Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets his supporters after registering his candidacy for 2019 elections in front of General Elections Commission (KPU) office, Jakarta, August 10 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/ Eko Siswono Toyudho

Now that he is again the sole electoral rival to President Joko Widodo, the checkered past of retired special forces general Prabowo Subianto will likely come under another searching examination as Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election campaign clicks into high gear.

This may well be the 66-year-old Prabowo’s last shot at the political heavyweight title, which has eluded him since the damaging fallout from the Asian financial crisis forced his long-ruling father-in-law, president Suharto, from office in May 1998.

Drummed out of the military three months later for insubordination and human rights violations, Prabowo has spent the past decade building the opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) into a launch pad for the presidential ambitions he has harbored since he was a boy.

Then locked in a power struggle with armed forces commander Gen Wiranto, Prabowo has always denied claims that he sought to use his position as head of the Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) to seize power during the chaotic events that followed Suharto’s resignation.

But newly declassified US National Security Archive cables, some of them heavily redacted, show that the ambitious three-star general saw the writing on the wall for his related authoritarian ruler long before most people at the time.

Then armed forces commander General Wiranto (L) removes an epaulet from then Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto (R) during a handover ceremony at the military headquarters, Jakarta, May 28, 1998. Photo: AFP/Agus Lolong

In a November 6, 1997, conversation with US Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth, Prabowo said, from his perspective, it would be better for Suharto to step down in March 1998 so the country could move peacefully through an orderly transition of power.

It is not clear why he settled on a four-month time frame for the eventual collapse of the New Order regime, but he told Roth that whether the president’s resignation happened in March or took a few more years, “the Suharto era will soon end.”

Without mentioning names, he then went on to say there were already “intrigues” going on beneath the surface by people who are not strong enough to challenge the president directly. These political maneuvers, he said, were dangerous because they increased the volatility of society.

Prabowo described the political transformation as “inevitable,” and said that while the military would be an obvious factor in the transition, his generation of officers wanted to follow the democratic examples of South Korea and Taiwan. “I hate politics,” he said, “I want the military out of politics.”

Prabowo expressed concern about whether Indonesia would go the same way as Yugoslavia “where a strong leader left and the country descended into anarchy.” Indeed, at the time of Suharto’s eventual fall many Indonesians were openly fearful of so-called Balkanization.

Prabowo Subianto (C) during his days as special forces commander. Photo: Youtube

The references to Yugoslavia were particularly resonant because Indonesia under founding president Sukarno enjoyed a cozy relationship with Yugoslavia and its leader, Josip Broz Tito, as part of their shared membership of the Non-Aligned Movement and their perceived common experience of throwing off external occupation—German and Dutch respectively.

The comparison was probably overdrawn, but it makes Indonesia’s survival and cohesion in the wake of Suharto’s fall all the more remarkable, given the different forces at play. As it turned, nothing significant happened outside of Jakarta as events unfolded.

Military analysts agree that neither Prabowo nor Wiranto were in a position to step into any leadership vacuum, even though Suharto was furious that his vice president and short-lived successor, B J Habibie, did not resign along with him.

Prabowo may have been able to call on the loyalty of the special forces, where he had spent most of his career, but it was probably a different story with Kostrad, the two-division regular force whose officer corps was far less enamored with a newly promoted general who often ignored the chain of command.

Although Prabowo took command responsibility for the abduction and torture of nine activists at a special forces facility in south Jakarta, he denies giving the orders to do so.

He also denies persistent speculation that he orchestrated the shooting deaths of four student protestors at Trisakti University on May 12, 1998, which triggered riots and looting across the capital that eventuated in Suharto’s downfall.

Indonesian activists, some in masks resembling those worn by their kidnappers, with a mock wanted sign for Gen Prabowo Subianto, July 20, 1998. Photo: AFP/Dadang Tri

“Anyone who believes the denouement of Suharto was all scripted is a fool or ignorant of the facts,” says a retired Western officer familiar with the period. “I knew the day would come when, as in a real earthquake, the political ground would become plastic and what was thought to be fixed in place would move and what was thought to be flexible would not be.

“The generals were playing it by ear and using what tools they had in the cupboard to deal with the developments and hoping it would all work out, which fortunately it did” – even if 1,500 people did die in the riots that hastened Suharto’s demise.

“Prabowo was part of a broad group of Indonesian colonels, many of whom hated each other, who saw that reform was essential and that the Indonesian military, corrupted by money and power, had grown soft and unprofessional,” he says.

“Loyalty was more important than any other virtue – integrity, honesty or professionalism,” the same officer says. “They knew the country was headed for a dramatic change, but were not sure how it would happen.” After 32 years of Suharto’s New Order rule, neither was anyone else.

In the end, the military did not seize power, as it did with the overthrow of founding president Sukarno in 1965, and the transition to greater democracy passed more peacefully than expected, even if the New Order structure remained largely in place as a trade-off.