Suharto casts shadow over Indonesia's election

A poster bearing the portrait of Suharto with a slogan 'How are you bro? Still better in my time, no?' is displayed in Karanganyar town in central Java, March 9, 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some Indonesians are fed up with democracy and remember Suharto fondly

For more than a decade Indonesia has enjoyed a lively democracy. But as millions prepare to vote in the third direct presidential election, memories of former dictator Suharto linger on, as the BBC's Karishma Vaswani reports.

Hundreds of Indonesians arrive daily at the Suharto museum in Central Java to pay their respects to a man who was as close to a king as you can get in this country.

General Suharto ruled Indonesia for 32 years.

His brutal New Order regime shot down dissenters and his soldiers silenced the opposition.

But he's still revered as a demi-god in his hometown of Kemusuk.

"This is the same water that Suharto drank as a child," says museum keeper Gatot Nugroho, showing me a stone well.

"We believe that if you wash your hands in this water, and then do your prayers, Allah will grant you whatever you desire.

Image caption Indonesians still visit this well from which Suharto drank as a child
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Indonesia's democracy is lively and often chaotic

"That's how powerful our belief in Suharto is."

Suparni and Tugiyat sell T-shirts emblazoned with Suharto's face and slogans in Javanese, saying: "It was better in my time, wasn't it?"

Was it really better, I asked, having grown up in those days myself?

I remembered the days of the New Order well.

Time magazine and the Far Eastern Economic Review would often be delivered to our house with pages covered in thick black ink.

Paragraphs that were deemed offensive to Suharto were removed from view.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Prabowo Subianto, a former general from the Suharto era, is closing in on the presidency

But for Suparni and Tugiyat those days marked a simpler, less chaotic time.

"We had food on our table, and we could get jobs," says Suparni.

"Pak Harto [a nickname for the former dictator] looked after us... he was a firm leader."

'Unthinkable' presidency

After 16 years of an often messy and complicated democracy, some Indonesians are looking for a way out.

Enter Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's ex son-in-law and former commander of Indonesia's special forces.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Subianto was fired as special forces chief in 1998, but never prosecuted

Mr Subianto has exploited his relationship with the strongman, and sports his signature safari suit and black fez hat.

Many Indonesians are attracted to his bold, nationalistic speeches, in which he regularly berates foreigners for stealing Indonesia's natural resources.

But Mr Subianto's path to the presidency has been marred by controversy.

He has a tainted record on human rights, having been dismissed from the army for his role in the abduction of student activists in 1998.

Raharja Jati was one of dozens of anti-Suharto activists kidnapped and tortured by Indonesia's special forces when Mr Subianto led them.

For him, it would be unthinkable to have Mr Subianto as president.

"They didn't let me sleep, they electrocuted me, and hit me many many times," he says.

"They made me lie down on an ice block for hours on end. But what I will never forget is how they would step on my face with their military boots. I can never forget that."

Mr Jati is convinced Mr Subianto cannot change.

"He was never held accountable, no-one ever punished him for what he did," he says.

"I worry he will take democratic Indonesia back to the days of dictatorship."

Mr Subianto has insisted he has no plans to roll back Indonesia's democracy, and in fact wants to eliminate corruption and strengthen law and order.

A political rookie?

Standing against Mr Subianto is Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, a furniture exporter with humble beginnings.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Joko Widodo enjoys rock star status with many Indonesians, but critics describe him as a political rookie

He enjoys rock-star status among many poor Indonesians and until recently was the frontrunner.

But his critics say he is a political rookie, and does not know how to run a country.

"Jokowi is an asset to Jakarta, but he should stick to running this city," says Sandiaga Uno, Mr Subianto's campaign spokesman.

He was referring to Mr Widodo's former job as governor of Indonesia's capital city.

"Prabowo Subianto is a firm leader, and his vision for Indonesia is the one that will grow our economy and our position internationally."

A third of Indonesia's voters are heading to the polls for the first time this Wednesday.

They are children of Indonesia's modern era - they don't remember the days of the dictatorship, having grown up in a democracy.

This is the demographic who are among Mr Subianto's strongest supporters - an Indonesian youth hungry for decisive leadership and a president who can better represent Indonesia on the international stage.

But others have voiced their concerns that he would spell the end of Indonesia's hard-won democracy.

'Father of our nation'

For the first time in its 31-year history, the main English language daily in the country, the Jakarta Post, endorsed a candidate in the Indonesian election - Joko Widodo - and delivered a scathing rebuke to his opponent Mr Subianto.

"In an election like no other, we cannot sit on the fence when the alternative is too ominous to consider," the editorial read.

Indonesia elections


eligible voters

  • 30% will be first-time voters at

  • 479,183 polling stations on

  • 8,000 inhabited islands across Indonesia and overseas


"A man who has admitted to abducting rights activists has no place at the helm of the world's third largest democracy."

Back at Suharto's museum, a group of young children are led through the museum by their dad, who points out pictures of the former dictator on the walls.

"This is President Suharto," he tells them, making them recite the general's name over and over.

"He was the father of our nation. We can never forget him."

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