Playing the Pied Piper

VOTES 2004

General Wiranto wants to be president, nothing less. He is working the ground hard to launch an assault for the country’s top job. He talks to The Straits Times’ Indonesia Bureau Chief DERWIN PEREIRA about his hopes and the possible obstacles that lie in his path.

His instrument is the saxophone.

Presidential aspirant Wiranto took up music as a young cadet officer in Magelang in the sixties and made a name for himself as a musician by playing for the local group, Lokananta Drumband.

Music – and the saxophone – is still his passion.

Three years ago, he swopped the barracks for the recording studio. These days, his craggy face appears on CDs of an album of love songs titled For You, My Indonesia.

The CDs are given to the wong cilik, or little people, during his trips to the heartlands.

Sometimes, he even sings to woo them as he croons his way into politics. The odds are stacked against the former Suharto strongman from ascending to the presidency. But he is brimming with confidence.

His body language says it all. He sits relaxed on a black leather sofa in his 21st floor office suite which overlooks the slums and skyscrapers of the city.

Dressed in a maroon silk shirt, well-cut slacks, and designer shoes, he carries himself with a regal air.

Mr Wiranto says six months visiting all 30 provinces in Indonesia gives him hope that he can take on incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri or any other presidential candidate.

‘I know there is a special bond between me and the people,’ he says. ‘Everywhere I go, people tell me that they want me to be their leader.’

The 57-year-old retired general has spared no effort to buff his tainted image. Besides recording an album and singing on national TV, he has also published a book about East Timor.

These days, he even gives out wristwatches and pocket calendars, each with a picture of the smiling general.

The old soldier refuses to fade away – engaging in populist activities to win the hearts and minds of the poor in Indonesia.

Stop at any shabby street-side eatery, commonly known as warung, and you might find yourself seated next to him, eating nasi goreng. One of the warung groups in the capital has even made him its ‘honorary patron and protector’.

At the heart of all this is redemption. A former army general who served under him notes: ‘There is a larger issue for him here. Personal pride. He wants to go down in Indonesian history as a saviour and king, not as a villain.’

Eight years ago, he was Mr Suharto’s most trusted general – and was being groomed to be Indonesia’s next leader. That trust was seen when the former president presented him with the Bintang Dharma, Indonesia’s highest military award, during the annual armed forces day parade in 1996.

The parade is usually reserved for celebrating the military anniversary, rather than any individual officer’s achievements. And Mr Suharto, in the last days of his office in May 1998, even gave him carte-blanche power to take over the country.

Mr Wiranto, who was then the military commander, refused. It is a decision that could haunt him forever if he fails to win the presidency this year.

Born in April 1947 in Yogyakarta in Central Java, the son of a schoolteacher, his rise up the military ranks was fast. His fall was just as dramatic.

He was military chief when pro-Jakarta militias went on the rampage in East Timor in September 1999 after the territory voted for independence. He was blamed for rioting that left hundreds dead.

A year later, he was sacked from the Cabinet after falling out with then president Abdurrahman Wahid and the forces of reformasi.

If his New Order pedigree was a liability then, he sees it as an asset now. He says that the political mood in Indonesia is changing – and focused on stability and more pressing ‘bread-and-butter’ issues.

He is riding on such sentiments under the banner of Peace, Stability and Welfare.

He explains: ‘Indonesians in the heartlands want rice, not riots and disturbances. I can give them what they enjoyed during the Suharto era.’

But he makes clear that he wants to do so without resorting to ‘the old style of running the country’.

Mr Wiranto assumes that his candidature represents the nostalgia for the New Order stability. But he is careful not to be linked too closely with the past regime.

He wants to tailor his candidacy to be reformist with the benefits of the New Order. It is a contradiction he struggles to reconcile.

Clearly, he learnt most about politics from Mr Suharto as a young adjutant in the late 1990s and in his subsequent command appointments. But, when asked, he names him as just one of several leaders who had a profound influence on his political thinking.

The others are Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammad. He also does not want to be drawn into whether his election campaign is being supported by the Suharto clan.

Is he old wine in a new bottle? Perhaps.

He talks about reforming the legal and education systems, and trimming the bloated bureaucracy and government. His ideological imperatives, however, are still conservative.

He refuses to compromise on certain fundamentals: Order and stability, the unity of the distended archipelago, and the state Pancasila ideology. Some are critical that his reform measures are all ‘PR-driven’. Not entirely.

His call for a one-term presidency, for example, is a sure reform measure. Mr Wiranto explains: ‘There needs to be a limit because it will force governments to perform. The longer they stay on in power, the less they do and the more their opponents grow. Do we benefit under such circumstances?’

Getting into office will not be a cakewalk, however. He faces several obstacles. His biggest challenge will be fighting the Golkar juggernaut.

Both he and Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung are frontrunners in the race that includes five other candidates. But ultimately, Mr Akbar has the upper hand given his control over the party.

For the first time during the hour-long interview, Mr Wiranto shifts awkwardly on his plush sofa when he talks about his chief rival and his political strategy for winning the race. Clearly uncomfortable with the question, he avoids eye contact, looking sideways to the left.

‘I am not someone who likes to criticise my opponents in public,’ he says. ‘Let me just say that participation in the convention needs clearer rules. How can Akbar be both party chairman and a presidential candidate?’

For some time, his star was shining, with the Golkar leader held at bay by the threat of going to jail for corruption. But with exoneration last week by the Supreme Court, Mr Wiranto faces an uphill battle.

Most of the provincial party branches and the Golkar executive board are expected to throw their weight behind Mr Akbar.

The preliminary convention in October last year was determined largely by the ability of candidates to pump money into the provinces. And Mr Wiranto has a huge war chest.

But the dynamics during the April convention are likely to be different, being determined by the need to choose a winning ticket. He may well prove to be a difficult choice for the Golkar executive board.

In that scenario, he has little alternative but to ditch Golkar and join another party or coalition that is prepared to nominate him for the presidency.

His choices are limited because he is not prepared to accept anything less than the top job.

Major parties like the Indonesian Democratic Party (Struggle) (PDI-P) and the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) are also not keen to ally with him, given that they have their own candidates in place.

Under such circumstances, he might turn to an Islamic bloc coalition or forces opposing Ms Megawati. But even if he does, there is no guarantee they would want to forge an alliance with him.

A second dilemma for him is international opinion, especially from the United States. A Washington Post report last month said that the US State Department had barred him and five military officers from entering the US for their involvement in the East Timor debacle.

In response to such reports, the Wiranto camp shoots back with this question: if Uncle Sam can accept General Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s president why not Mr Wiranto as Indonesia’s leader?

His New Order credentials could also haunt him at home. If history is a linear progression, reformasi and the forces supporting it will only strengthen with the passage of time.

Mr Martin Hughes, of the Jakarta-based Control Risks Group notes: ‘In the end, history may well be his Achilles heel. A decade ago, Wiranto would have been perfect as president. But today, it is hard for someone associated so closely with the Suharto regime to have mass appeal in Indonesia.’

But Mr Wiranto is doggedly insistent that he will win. He appears to be following the Javanese principle of alon alon asal kelakon (slow but sure) in his pursuit.

‘There are no obstacles for me in the fight for the presidency,’ he says. ‘I am confident I will win if there is fair play. Indonesians want me. This is my time.’

He is likely to be one of at least four candidates who will go into the first round of the presidential race in July.

He might play the saxophone like the proverbial Pied Piper to draw the voters but the considerable challenges he faces may change the tune.

The jury is still out.


There is a larger issue for him here. Personal pride. He wants to go down in Indonesian history as a saviour and king, not as a villain.’
– A former army general who served under Mr Wiranto


A decade ago, Wiranto would have been perfect as president. But today, it is hard for someone associated so closely with the Suharto regime to have mass appeal in Indonesia.’
– Mr Martin Hughes of the Jakarta-based Control Risks Group

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