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Indonesia’s Next President?

Indonesians will not go to the polls to elect a new president until 2014, but already a front-runner has emerged. His name is Prabowo Subianto and he is a wealthy, charismatic ex-general and the former son-in-law of disgraced former president Suharto.

Tired of corruption, inefficiency, and bottlenecks caused by delayed infrastructure projects, many Indonesians seem to want a strong hand ruling the country after the next elections. The Wall Street Journal wonders if General Prabawo fits that bill:

When Suharto’s 32-year reign came to an end in a frenzy of national protest and riots in 1998, members of an Indonesian Special Forces unit that Mr. Prabowo commanded were accused by activists of kidnapping democracy advocates, among other crimes. When Suharto stepped down, the military forced out Gen. Prabowo.

But as Prabawo notes, he was never charged with any wrongdoing. Nor is he seeking to hide from his military past:

His military record may be his strongest suit, supporters and some analysts say.

“He is known for being able to make decisions under pressure,” said Sabam Rajagukguk, 32, a supporter and member of Mr. Prabowo’s Gerindra political party. “Look at Singapore or look at [South] Korea: All the Asian countries that are doing well have had leaders who could make decisive decisions and are not afraid to be unpopular.” [. . .]

He promises to use military-style efficiency to push through chronically delayed infrastructure projects, as well as to create jobs in the archipelago’s backwaters by improving agricultural productivity. He proposes to spend more on new farming equipment and wants to reclaim five million hectares of damaged forest land for farmers.

Prabawo also favors protecting minority religious rights. Traditionally tolerant Indonesia has seen the rise of intolerant forms of Islam in recent years and Prabawo’s platform is “solidly secular” according to the WSJ profile; it is to be hoped that under his leadership the more tolerant strains of Indonesian Islam would prevail.

Whoever is in charge of the archipelago nation will have plenty of items on the to do list. A country of 240 million people, Indonesia has the largest economy in southeast Asia. But despite years of stability and strong growth following the downfall of Suharto, much remains to be done. Corruption is far too common; the divide between the rich and the poor is too wide for comfort. Some parts of Indonesia crackle with religious tensions; parts of the island of New Guinea have never really accepted Indonesian rule. The earthquake prone, volcanically active Indonesian archipelago faces a long list of serious environmental problems from a mud volcano that is inundating villages in eastern Java to the devastating forest fires that regularly create haze and pollution hundreds of miles away during the burning season.

But for all its problems, Indonesia is something of a success story: it is the world’s largest Muslim majority country and its transition from dictatorship to democracy has inspired Muslims and others around the world. Americans will need to pay more attention to Indonesia in this new Pacific-focused century; for one thing, Indonesia is the natural leader of ASEAN at a time when tension over the future of the South China Sea is high.

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  • dearieme

    Indonesia’s Next President?

    You tease – I thought you were referring to O.

  • Luke Lea

    Tired of corruption? Didn’t Suharto amass a fortune of several billion dollars while in office?

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