Sympathisers choose to brush aside the glaring bad points of a leader widely regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century
Painted on the back of trucks and emblazoned across T-shirts, the smiling face of former Indonesian dictator Suharto has become a common sight across Java 16 years after his downfall.
“How are you bro? Still better in my time, no?!” runs a phrase commonly printed alongside the late army general, toppled following more than three decades in power when the Asian financial crisis tore into Indonesia.
As voters gear up for legislative elections next month and presidential polls in July, disillusionment is running high with the country’s chaotic democracy, notorious for money-grubbing politicians and weak decision-making, while Suharto nostalgia grows.
Sympathisers have chosen to brush aside the glaring bad points of his regime, known as the New Order and widely regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century.
Vote-seeking politicians play up their links to Suharto, particularly from his former political vehicle Golkar, crowds flock to his tomb and a memorial has been set up in his birthplace in Kemusuk, in his heartland of main Java island.
“I like him because when violence erupted, he just crushed it,” said Sumarah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, during a recent visit to the memorial in central Java.
“People lived in peace, there were no demonstrations like nowadays, which cost the economy a lot,” added the 46-year-old, referring to the frequent protests that are now part of daily life in the nation.
Corruption and repression
Suharto became president in 1967 when he was a young army general, shortly after putting down an attempted coup, and on the back of a bloody massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and sympathisers which was encouraged by the military.
His long rule was marked by severe repression and colossal corruption – Transparency International ranks him as the most corrupt leader in history, estimating he embezzled between $15 billion and $35 billion (Bt489 billion-Bt1.1 trillion) during his rule.
But a growing number look longingly at the Suharto era, praising him for bringing stability after Indonesia’s painful birth pangs that followed Dutch colonial rule and overseeing an economic boom.
In a bustling market in Yogyakarta, central Java, T-shirts at a stall show a picture of Suharto next to the words “Don’t you miss that long-gone era of food self-sufficiency and guaranteed security?”
Such sentiments tap into discontent with surging inflation and among many young people struggling to find a job each year in the country of around 250 million people led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
On weekends up to 2,000 people flock to the tomb of Suharto and his wife outside the Javanese city of Solo, which is set in manicured hills and packed with hawkers selling T-shirts and framed pictures of the couple.
As well as the memorial in Kemusuk, where his speeches are played on loudspeakers and a small museum displays photos from his life, there is talk of turning his house in the capital Jakarta into a museum.
He spent the final years of his life there until his death in 2008 at the age of 86.
Politicians, particularly from Golkar, which was used by Suharto to give his iron-fisted rule a semblance of democracy but which is now a fully-fledged party, believe they have a lot to gain from the nostalgia.
“This will certainly benefit Golkar,” Aburizal Bakrie, the party’s presidential candidate, told the Jakarta Post newspaper in a recent interview.
“The elite can say any type of negative things about the New Order, but [common] people wish to go back to that system.”
The party, which is the second-biggest in parliament and in the ruling coalition, is also fielding one of Suharto’s daughters, Siti Hediati, as a parliamentary candidate at the April 9 polls.
“The daughter of Yogyakarta, the daughter of [Suharto] – honest and to be trusted,” runs the slogan next to a smiling Hediati on campaign billboards, with a picture of her father in the background.
“It was hoped the reform era would bring better conditions but that didn’t really happen,” Hediati told AFP, adding increased interest in Suharto was “genuinely from the people” and not instigated by the family.
However some believe the upsurge in nostalgia has been carefully orchestrated by those who want to see members of the Suharto clan return to power.
Observers say the trend is due in part to the authorities’ failure to punish members of the old regime or establish a national process to come to terms with the past.
Anti-Suharto activist Fadjroel Rachman said Indonesia should emulate countries such as Argentina with its truth commission to investigate crimes committed during a dictatorship or Cambodia and its UN-backed tribunal trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.
He is among many who are horrified at the growing support for a dictator who relied heavily on the army to crush dissent and made hundreds of political prisoners.
Agung Kurniawan, a Yogyakarta-based artist whose works were inspired by the brutality of Suharto’s regime, said he would fight any attempt by members of the dictator’s clan to return to power.
“We will fight again, we will go back to the streets,” he said, referring to the huge protest movement that preceded Suharto’s 1998 resignation.
Despite the nostalgia, Golkar and others trying to capitalise on it look set to be disappointed at the upcoming polls.
The main opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is expected to dominate both elections, particularly after the recent nomination of popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo as its presidential candidate.
He has no links to the New Order and analysts say his popularity signals Indonesians are keen to move forward beyond the Suharto era, not back.