The Jakarta Post
The May 22, 1998, face-to-face confrontation between then-president BJ Habibie (once Soeharto’s golden boy) and newly dismissed Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) chief Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto crossed my mind when I read a pollster’s conclusion last Sunday that Soeharto was Indonesia’s most successful president.
A few weeks ago, some media reports predicted it is just a matter of time before Soeharto’s dynasty gloriously re-emerges. One of Soeharto’s children, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putera, tried his luck with his new political party, the Berkarya (Working) Party.
Tommy’s elder sister, Siti “Titiek” Hediati Hariyadi, continues to strive for more influence in the Golkar Party, which was established by Soeharto.
Well-known pollster Indo Barometer’s survey ranked Soeharto the most successful among the country’s seven presidents, including the legendary first president Sukarno. The father of the third president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, is second in the survey, followed by the incumbent, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
As a journalist, I covered Soeharto for 12 years almost on a daily basis. I flew with him to Cairo just several days before his fall from grace on May 21, 1998. I almost became stateless in Egypt when Soeharto was outraged by the running text on CNN that quoted Reuters (which claimed to have quoted The Jakarta Post) as saying that Soeharto was ready to resign if Indonesians no longer wanted him as their leader.
“We could not find your passport,” a senior government official said, frightening me after describing Soeharto’s anger at my report. It was an official passport and held by the presidential office’s staff during the visit. I was later cleared because Reuters did not correctly quote the Post.
Does Soeharto really deserve such high recognition? And do you believe in the rise of Soeharto’s powerful dynasty? If you ask my honest opinion, I will definitely answer: No! But those who disagree can easily bully me and ask me to see a psychiatrist to check my sanity.
I must acknowledge that my firm conclusion is merely based on my experience as a journalist who covered Soeharto and the former first family for years. I could be wrong too.
We need to remember how popular Sukarno was during Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship.
Sukarno was a symbol of resistance against Soeharto. Megawati perfectly personified that sentiment. That she became the vice president in 1999 and later the president in 2001 was “completely” thanks to the people’s memory of her father. I am a loyal supporter of her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, but it is likely because of family tradition.
Soeharto was definitely a far-reaching visionary leader. Indonesia achieved amazing economic progress under his leadership, there is no doubt about it. But the problems started when his six children grew up and entered the business world. Their cronies also emerged and even became uncontrollable.
Soeharto found it hard to say “enough is enough” to his beloved. The situation worsened after his wife, Tien Soeharto, died on April 28, 1996. He lost his balance. One year later, the Asian Financial Crisis swept across Indonesia. “The people’s power” forced Soeharto to step down. Soeharto almost completely ruined what he had built and the nation is still recovering the costs of the crisis.
Soeharto’s children are quite smart and patient in appeasing public anger against their businesses. They avoid controversies, and it was only Tommy who had to go to prison — for murder. Soeharto’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren enjoy life and there is no signal of their interest in high-level politics. So, I don’t believe they will dominate national politics.
Why do I recount Prabowo’s quarrel with Habibie that occurred 20 years ago today? Habibie was just lucky to become the country’s third president. Prabowo himself believes — until now — he deserves the post much more than anyone else. That is why he insists on a “rematch” with Jokowi in the 2019 presidential election after being defeated in 2014. In 2009, Prabowo contested the election as Megawati’s running mate, but lost.
Revisiting the argument in his book Detik-detik yang Menentukan (The Decisive Moments), Habibie said Prabowo came to him to ask for his reinstatement as Kostrad chief. Habibie had ordered Prabowo’s dismissal for allegedly attempting a coup. Not only did Prabowo fail to regain his post, his military career ended later in August.
Former armed forces chief and defense minister Gen. (ret) Wiranto has written his own version about the stand-off between Habibie and Prabowo.
Prabowo is no longer on the list of Soeharto’s clan as he divorced Titiek. They have one son, fashion designer Didit Hediprasetyo.
But as a retired army general, whose skyrocketing career could not be separated from Soeharto’s role, Prabowo is still Soeharto’s “ideological” family member. So if he can defeat Jokowi in 2019, Soeharto deserves some credit for the victory.
Like Soeharto, Prabowo has escaped trial despite his alleged roles in human rights abuses, abduction of student activists and the May 1998 riots in Jakarta that preceded Soeharto’s fall from grace. Soeharto was accused of graft but never taken to court, but it does not mean he is our most successful president.
I do not see any chance for Soeharto’s political dynasty to strike back either. Can Prabowo help the clan come back? It is too risky to answer this question.