Meet Tommy Suharto, son of a dictator turned democrat

Bogor: He has beaten corruption charges, spent time in jail for ordering the assassination of a Supreme Court judge, made a fortune that once ran to $US800 million ($1 billion) off the back of government concessions and grown up in the shadow of a nearly-all powerful father who ruled and shaped Indonesia for 31 years.

And now Hutomo Mandala Putra, much better known as Tommy Suharto,  wants Indonesians to vote for him.

The youngest son of former Indonesian president Suharto, Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra.

The youngest son of former Indonesian president Suharto, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra.

The youngest son of Indonesia's longest-serving president, recently confirmed as a parliamentary candidate in Papua province for the April 2019 elections, has a new(ish) party machine, Berkarya, and has his sights set on winning 80 seats in the 575 member national parliament (they plan to stand a candidate in every seat).

Suharto told Fairfax Media on Monday that he had broken with Golkar, the party of his father and still a formidable machine in Indonesia's electoral politics, because "first of all, Golkar has moved away from its initial mission because they no longer put people's interest as priority".

"Instead, they fight more for the interest of the party elite and for power. In the end pragmatism is high so party ideology and character are no longer there," he said.

"Indonesia must become a strong agrarian country supported by strong industry. It means we should not only work to be self-sufficient, rather Indonesia, with such huge land, should become a world food barn [an exporter of food]."

A police officer, left, smiles as he escorts Tommy, fugitive son of former Indonesian President Suharto, through a mob of reporters after his capture at police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia.

A police officer, left, smiles as he escorts Tommy, fugitive son of former Indonesian President Suharto, through a mob of reporters after his capture at police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Like so many other candidates, Suharto's message is tightly-targeted one for the orang kecil, the so-called little people of this sprawling nation.

Both Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and the man considered most likely to challenge him again, the failed 2014 presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, stress the need for food security, too –  a popular aspiration in Indonesia, where memories of the 2011 live cattle export ban imposed by Australia still linger.

But Suharto's dose of nationalism is measured with a dash of reassurance for an international audience wondering whether Australia's near neighbour might be about to turn further inward.

"I think Indonesia and Australia can co-operate because Indonesia has a huge need for meat, however we should have actual self-sufficiency in meat, especially beef, because we have a very big land. But cattle farming in Indonesia is not as good as in Australia," he said.

Then Indonesian president Suharto, right, salutes after announcing his resignation in 1998.

Then Indonesian president Suharto, right, salutes after announcing his resignation in 1998.

"So we should work together so that Indonesia can learn about the technology from Australia on how to run cattle farming."

Suharto's party has targeted 80 seats – one for each of the 80 electoral districts in the country – which amounts to about 13.9 per cent of the national vote, but "as a new party, it's quite challenging", he conceded.

In fact, according the Australian National University's Indonesia expert Associate Professor Marcus Mietzner, Suharto's new party could struggle to claim any seats in Parliament at all.

That's because to claim seats a party must also reach a threshold of four per cent of the national vote.

Mietzner said that was unlikely to happen because "he doesn’t connect with the electorate, he doesn’t connect with political elites and the electoral threshold is quite high this time".

Other "equally unappealling" potential candidates own TV stations or newspapers, Mietzner said.

"[Suharto] lacks all of that. He would have to do really well to win 40 seats, about half of what he wants."

Four per cent of perhaps 200 million registered voters is a tall order for any political party, Mietzner said, particularly one running candidates for Parliament for the first time, and in an environment where there is "no particular [president] Suharto nostalgia at the moment".

Under Indonesia's election laws, Suharto is not banned from running for Parliament because his corruption conviction was overturned.

And the prohibition on people convicted of crimes that carry a jail term of more than five years (he received 15 years but served about four for his role in ordering the murder of judge Syarifuddin Kartasasmita) also contains a get-out clause that lets people stand for Parliament if they are up front about their track record, according to the Jakarta Post.

Suharto has been famously litigious when the details of his past have been raised in the media.

He successfully sued national flag carrier, Garuda Indonesia, in 2011 after a translator for the English-language version of the airline's magazine added a footnote to an article about one of his resorts that noted his previous conviction.

Given his legal problems in the past, does this son of an autocrat-turned-democratic candidate support freedom of the press?

"Very much, that's why you are here, you are free to talk to me," he said with a laugh.

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