By Kate Lamb
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Dismissed from the military amid speculation of rights abuses, exiled in Jordan, and banned from travelling to the United States on account of his alleged dark past, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto is now in pole position to be Indonesia's next leader.
The two-time presidential loser announced on Sunday he will contest the post for the third time in the February election, with President Joko Widodo's son as his running mate.
"We are ready to move forward for Indonesia," Prabowo told a press conference.
The former special forces commander has undergone a remarkable transformation since being appointed defence minister in 2019, cultivating a persona that is more charismatic statesman than fiery, pious nationalist, analysts say.
The former son-in-law of late strongman president Suharto, Prabowo is accused of involvement in the kidnapping of student activists in 1998 and rights abuses in Papua and East Timor. The allegations are unproven, and Prabowo has always denied any responsibility.
As the 72-year-old gears up for the election campaign, the numbers suggest his rebranding is working.
An opinion poll published by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) this month showed Prabowo ahead of his two opponents with 34% support.
In a two-way race against his closest competitor, former regional governor Ganjar Pranowo, he had an 11-point lead.
"His chance at winning is now the strongest," said LSI's Djayadi Hanan. "Part of the reason for that is the president's endorsement."
Unable to run after serving the maximum two terms, Widodo, better known as Jokowi, has signalled he backs his once bitter enemy. Jokowi defeated Prabowo in the 2014 and 2019 elections.
With his 36-year-old son as a possible vice-president, Jokowi is seeking to retain some influence in government, analysts say.
By appointing Prabowo to his cabinet in 2019, Jokowi provided the former general with a level of validation and visibility he previously lacked, such as seeing his de facto travel ban to the U.S. erased in 2020 when he visited the Pentagon.
As minister, Prabowo has embarked on an ambitious upgrade of the country's ageing military hardware, signing defence deals in Europe, the United States and Middle East, with red carpets rolled out for him from Paris to Beijing.
'IMAGE MAKING MACHINE'
To his almost 6 million Instagram followers, Prabowo's profile is regularly updated with snaps from his day job, interspersed with offerings of his cats, artistic black and white portraits, and vintage family photographs of his parents and childhood.
From an elite Indonesian family, Prabowo's father was a prominent economist and cabinet minister under Suharto, and his brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, is a successful businessman. In 1983, the rising military star married Suharto's daughter Siti Hediati Hariyadi, but they separated soon after the autocratic president was ousted in 1998.
Prabowo also went into in self-exile in Jordan at that time.
"Prabowo's team is clearly portraying Prabowo in a 'softer' way in an effort to win over undecided voters. It's a change from previous campaigns where we've seen nationalist populist Prabowo, and pro-Islamist Prabowo," said Ross Tapsell, from the Australian National University.
As the campaign heats up, the question is whether the approach continues.
"In 2019, he started quite politely and calmly, and by the end he was claiming the election was rigged," added Tapsell.
Prabowo's cabinet appointment in 2019 was seen at the time as a way for Jokowi to heal political divisions.
In another sign of the image makeover, in a recent television interview with journalist Najwa Shihab, the former general, known for his legendary temper, came across as humorous and avuncular.
Referring to his time as a soldier Prabowo said: "Maybe the perception of me was that I was tough, scary. I am not scary now, right?" he said.
When Shihab claimed he was just being a politician, he joked that perhaps he was not a good one because he "kept on losing".
"He obviously has very savvy PR people who have helped to shape his image. He has been much more restrained in direct interviews and has avoided open press conferences," said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
With more than 100 million Indonesians under the age of 40 registered in next February's polls, all candidates are vying for the millennial vote.
Many, said Harsono, are too young to know the details of the accusations levelled against Prabowo, which he says are not widely discussed in the Indonesian media anymore.
"The younger generation does not know much about what Prabowo did in Jakarta, East Timor, Papua," he said.
"He has never been held accountable."
(Additional reporting by Ananda Teresia; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)