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Prabowo, born to rule?

IS HE THE ONE? Mr Prabowo leaving a campaign rally in Ciparay, near Bandung, West Java, on Thursday. The presidential candidate is in a dead heat with Jakarta Governor Joko.


    Jul 09, 2014

    Prabowo, born to rule?


    IN THE evenings, near Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's cattle farm in the mountains outside Jakarta, vendors with unsold food rely on the former army commando to buy their leftovers.

    "He comes down with a car and when he passes by he rolls down the window and waves at us," said Vina, who runs a small grocery store. "He likes to joke. He says 'don't take life too seriously. You'll get stressed out, and it makes you old, fast'."

    In the 16 years since former president Suharto was ousted and his then son-in-law Prabowo fired from his post as lieutenant-general amid accusations of human rights abuses, he's recast himself as a successful businessman and farmer who pays for the schooling of village children.

    Mr Prabowo has run an efficient campaign portraying himself as a strong, capable leader, a message resonating with voters less concerned about his reputation for not tolerating dissent.

    Mr Prabowo, 62, is in a neck-and-neck race for today's vote, vying with Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, 53, to lead the world's fourth-most-populous nation.

    "Prabowo is the quintessential blue-blood - his ancestry links him to the Javanese aristocracy, and his own father was a multiple Cabinet minister," said Jeffrey Neilson, the Indonesia coordinator of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney.

    "His own rapid rise through the military occurred when he was President Suharto's son-in-law. He believes he has a right to rule."

    Mr Prabowo has seen a late slip in polls that still show a statistical dead heat.

    Mr Joko led with 47.8 per cent, against 44.2 per cent for Mr Prabowo in a survey last week by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia that had a 2 percentage point margin of error.

    "He has a strong character, very strong," said Agus Widjojo, a retired lieutenant-general who knew Mr Prabowo in the army.

    "He was very strongly driven by his ambition to lead the country," Mr Widjojo said. "He knows how to take advantage of the condition of the voters to acquire votes."

    Those who served under Mr Prabowo describe a commander who knew how to choose the right people for each mission and would fight alongside his soldiers when needed. They say he'd make soldiers take part in fighting sports to hone their toughness, yet encouraged them to pursue formal education.

    James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia's Monash University, said: "While he believes in the democratic process, he believes that a country like Indonesia is not ready for full democracy."

    On the two candidates, he added: "The contrast between the two of them is very, very clear. One represents the old Indonesia, one represents the future."

    Those close to Mr Prabowo say he simply wants to steer Indonesia towards better times. They describe a man who loves animals and is a voracious reader, with an interest in books about history.

    "Every time we have a family gathering, he is very jovial, full of jokes," said Soedradjad Djiwandono, a former Bank Indonesia governor married to Mr Prabowo's sister, Biantiningsih Miderawati.