JAKARTA // Indonesian presidential contender Prabowo Subianto ordered the abduction of democracy activists in the dying days of dictator Suharto’s rule, was once refused entry to the US over rights abuses, and used to be married to one of Mr Suharto’s daughters.
But the ex-general's dark past has done little to stop his charge for the country's top job, and he is now almost neck-and-neck with Joko Widodo -— the long-time favourite who is seen as a break from the Suharto era.
His popularity has surged in recent weeks, driven by his nationalistic speeches and promises of strong leadership, and the growing likelihood of a Prabowo presidency is starting to cause unease about a potential shift towards more authoritarian rule.
Helped by his vast wealth and the crucial support of several Muslim parties, the 62-year-old has dramatically cut Mr Widodo’s once-huge lead to just a few points.
Mr Prabowo is “extremely hungry” for the job, according to Indonesia analyst Kevin Evans.
“I think he recognises this is his last serious run for it, so it’s now or never. He’s a man who’s held great ambitions for himself and his country since he was a young fellow,” Mr Evans said.
For the ex-general turned businessman, who is worth some US$150 million, victory in Wednesday’s poll would cap a decade-long battle to win high office in the world’s third-biggest democracy.
Mr Prabowo sought to become the presidential candidate of the Golkar party, Suharto’s former political vehicle, in 2004, but was not selected.
He then left to form his own party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party, and ran for vice president in 2009 on a ticket with ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who failed to win.
The prospect of Mr Prabowo taking charge in Indonesia has sparked concern that democratic gains made since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998 could be rolled back.
In one speech in Jakarta, Mr Prabowo railed at Western-style politics, saying that it “doesn’t suit” Indonesia.
Mr Prabowo has since insisted that he thinks Indonesia’s democracy should be protected, but commentators are nevertheless worried about his true intentions.
His nationalistic pronouncements during the campaign, such as promises to further squeeze foreign companies operating in the resources sector, have also sparked alarm among investors.
Mr Prabowo was born in 1951 to a wealthy, prominent family. His father was Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, who served as finance and trade minister, while his grandfather established the country’s first state-owned bank.
When he was five, his family fled overseas after his father became involved in a separatist movement.
He returned to Indonesia and joined the military in 1970.
In 1983 he married one of Suharto’s daughters, Siti Hediati Hariyadi. They have divorced, but speculation swirled during the election campaign they may reunite, with Muslim parties pushing for a reunion, fearful the country may end up with an unmarried leader.
In his role of head of the army’s special forces, he ordered the abduction of democracy activists ahead of Suharto’s downfall.
He was dismissed from the military in 1998 over the kidnappings and went into voluntary exile in Jordan.
On his return several years later, he launched his business career, and now has interests in many areas, from pulp and paper, to palm oil and energy.
A Prabowo victory could prove awkward for the United States, an Indonesian ally. He was once refused a visa to the US over his rights record, although American officials have indicated that he would likely be allowed to visit as president.