Will the real Prabowo please stand up?

Prabowo Subianto gestures to supporters on his way to register at the Election Commission for the upcoming July 9 election in Jakarta, May 20, 2014. — Reuters pic
Prabowo Subianto gestures to supporters on his way to register at the Election Commission for the upcoming July 9 election in Jakarta, May 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

JUNE 1 — When Prabowo Subianto began his campaign for the presidency over a year ago, he was touted as a strong leader that Indonesia needed after 10 years of the less-than-inspiring leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Packaging himself as a nationalist leader with a populist platform, he vowed to reverse everything that was wrong with the country. These range from closing the income gap caused by what he called the “neo-liberal” economic policies, eradicating the pervasive problem of corruption, to firmly ending sectarian violence that is threatening the religious harmony in Indonesia.

It was a campaign that, when carried out consistently, had helped make many people, including first-time voters, overlook his questionable track record of being discharged from military service in 1998 after allegations of human rights abuses.

As the competition heats up against his only opponent Joko Widodo in the July 9 presidential election, however, Prabowo has been showing his many face(t)s, at the cost of contradicting himself and putting off his early supporters.

From his assortment of controversial allies to his camp’s embrace of sectarian sentiment, he has become a model of inconsistency.

First, having criticised Yudhoyono’s economic policies in the past, he ended up making the administration’s top economic minister Hatta Rajasa his running mate. Then when Aburizal Bakrie, who is the chairman of the second largest party Golkar, went to him after being spurned by the Jokowi camp, Prabowo accepted and offered the controversial businessman some key economic ministerial posts.

Prabowo promotes himself as an ideological child of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, even mirroring the image of the late charismatic president. Clad in white shirt and black fez — and sometimes using 1950-style microphones — his rhetoric is filled with the populist, anti-imperialistic sentiment of the Sukarnoist tradition.

On several occasions, he expressed his intention to nationalise foreign assets in Indonesia, forcing his brother the billionaire Hashim Djojohadikusumo to manage damage control afterwards by assuring the business world of his brother’s commitment to a conducive investment climate.

A company executive told me that Prabowo had impressed him and his colleagues last year during a dinner he had with top industry players. Then he presented himself as a “moderate, professional, democratic and pro-investment leader” who clearly delineated all the problems faced by Indonesia and what needed to be done to fix them.

To these group of multinational executives he said he was aware of the labour problems besetting the industry sector in Indonesia, and that he had told labour union leaders to discipline their members so as not to spook investors.

On May Day last month, however, Prabowo told a gathering of tens of thousands of factory workers that foreigners had robbed and colonised Indonesia for years. He reiterated his rejection of capitalism and neo-liberalism. Ironically, earlier in the year, news reports emerged that his pulp producer company PT Kertas Nusantara in East Kalimantan had not paid some 600 of its 1,500 employees in the past six months because of financial trouble.

Nationalistic rhetoric aside, the heightened religious, and subtly racial, tone of his campaign is making many people nervous.

Before his coalition of mainly Muslim parties was formed, Prabowo had been actively courting Christian leaders and clergy members to support him. Showing his own family’s pluralistic upbringing, he vowed to protect religious harmony in Indonesia. His late mother was a Christian as are Hashim and his family.

But two weeks ago, the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches (PGI) criticised Gerindra Party’s manifesto on religion, which declared that the state must ensure the purity of religions recognised by the state (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism).

Some fear that this reveals Prabowo’s policy on the persecution of religious minorities like the Shias and the Ahmadis. When asked, Gerindra’s official Twitter account responded that while all believers must be protected, those “on the wrong path” would be imposed with a “deterrent effect.”

Naturally, Prabowo’s allies are playing up the religious factor to undermine Jokowi’s Islamic credentials. Senior politician Amien Rais has compared the two-candidate race to the “Battle of Badr”, a key battle in the history of Islam, drawing criticism for his sectarian insinuation. Prabowo has even embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the militant group behind a number of religious-based violence in the country.

Meanwhile, his vow to eliminate corruption faced an early snag, when one of his key allies Suryadharma Ali, who was the Religious Minister, was named a suspect in a corruption case by the Anti-Corruption Committee. It did not help that Prabowo defended Suryadharma following the arrest.

Are Prabowo’s inconsistencies costing his campaign? Possibly.

His coalition is framing the current race as a contest between the Muslims and the anti-Muslims. While this might play on the fears of the hard-line components of the society who feel threatened by Indonesia’s diversity, it has a clear potential of disenchanting his more moderate supporters and further alienating the undecided, for whom religion may not be a major issue.

Furthermore, it gives prominence to the rather unattractive nature of a Machiavellian ambition. In the often-divisive politics of image, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.