In a time when political pollsters can be spotted around every corner and believing their results is almost a travesty to common sense, we hardly take political surveys seriously these days. We have become skeptical when it comes to the so-called independent pollsters, suspecting they may not be so independent in reality.
Yet, one of the major headlines last week was that Prabowo Subianto is emerging as one of the most popular presidential candidates, placed slightly below Megawati Sukarnoputri, in a poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), and this time I take it seriously because we should have seen it coming.
Prabowo, the former commander of the Kopassus Special Forces, has been busy rebranding himself in the past few years. Quite frankly, he has done a terrific job considering his reputation several years back, especially after his sabbatical years in Jordan following the post-1998 fracas.
His name was associated with activist kidnappings, torture, and all the mischievous acts during the fall of the New Regime, not to mention the allegation of atrocities committed by his army during his time in East Timor. He was found guilty by the military court although he didn’t serve any time in prison. In short, he wasn’t popular back then.
For a period of time, whenever you mentioned Prabowo’s name, chances are people would associate it with things that would not go under the “good deeds” label. Then came the 2009 election in which he was nominated as president by his political machine, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).
Seeing a slim chance of victory, he opted to run for vice president alongside the presidential candidate, Megawati. The pair, which seemed very unlikely to those who have been following Indonesian politics since the 1990s, didn’t win, but Prabowo’s mission to redeem his image had started.
I’m not a political communications expert but even the untrained eyes can appreciate the efforts made by Prabowo and his public relations team. He has traded his camouflage colored outfits for a more populist safari attire and his position as the chairman of a farmers organization consequently associates him with the commoners.
Prabowo has been saturating the mass media with adverts, campaigning about his visions for Indonesia and establishing a new image of himself. Gone is the old military Prabowo in red beret, born is the new Prabowo whose vision is the “ekonomi kerakyatan” (“the people’s economy”). Some critics suggest that it’s a lame attempt to re-brush his past, but while it might be lame, it does work as demonstrated by the poll’s result.
I also notice that Prabowo has an appeal to potential younger voters as a result of a successful rebranding campaign. I was involved in a radio talk show a couple of weeks ago discussing the future candidates in the 2014 election. Feedback from listeners suggested that some of them believe Prabowo has the character and iron-will to take the nation into a brighter future.
I also encountered similar opinions while conducting a casual, non-scientific survey for the now-defunct Provocative Proactive TV show, and most of the respondents I met (non-political savvy urban students who are eligible to vote in 2014) said that Prabowo might be a good future leader.
What is intriguing is most of them were not aware of Prabowo’s past (presumably a fair indicator of his character), so how could they pass such an assessment on the retired-general? Give thanks to the unceasing adverts.
Countless are the number of studies and articles telling us how banal and superficial political adverts are, but it will grow like moss in a humid place if applied to certain parts of the Indonesian population with short-term memory loss.
Some people lambast Prabowo for what he allegedly did in the past, but for others who only got acquainted with him through recent TV ads and online campaigns, he might not look so bad.
Pangeran Siahaan is the creative chief of Provocative Proactive, a movement that aims to provide political education to the young generation through arts and entertainment. He also writes about football on several online media outlets.