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Indonesia's next president?

Prabowo Subianto, a former general with deep ties to ex-Indonesian dictator Suharto, remakes himself.

Prabowo Subianto, chairman of Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), is greeted by his supporters during a rally in Sidoarjo, in Indonesia's East Java province, March 17, 2009. (Sigit Pamungkas/Reuters)

JAKARTA — The streets of Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, have been transformed by political propaganda.

Party flags, billboards and banners line the roadways and hoards of partisans are beginning to hit the road, hanging from bus windows and roofs, singing their support into bullhorns.

With 38 political parties putting up about 12,000 candidates to contest 560 seats for the parliamentary election April 9, parties are working overtime to get noticed. The ultimate goal is to take 25 percent of the popular vote or 20 percent of the seats in Parliament, which would qualify a party to nominate a candidate for July’s presidential election.

And nobody is doing a better job at getting noticed than Prabowo Subianto, a controversial ex-general and former son-in-law of Indonesia’s longtime authoritarian ruler, Suharto, who has recast himself as a champion of the country’s impoverished millions.

The very fact that Subianto has designs on the presidency is cause to take notice. During this, Indonesia’s first decade of democracy, he has stayed mostly out of the public eye, his name only gracing news stories about Suharto-era human rights abuses.

Human rights groups have long held Subianto responsible for abducting student activists during the upheaval of the late 1990s, as well as atrocities committed in East Timor, though he has never stood trial.

He was forced to resign his post as head of Indonesia’s Special Forces amid the kidnapping controversy in 1998, though he has always maintained he hadn’t exceeded his orders.

“It is like he is carrying a giant iron ball around his neck wherever he goes,” said Mohammad Qodari, an Indonesian political analyst and pollster.

Adding to the intrigue, Prabowo appointed as deputy campaign manager Muchdi Purwopranjono, a former intelligence chief who in January was controversially acquitted for ordering the 2004 murder of Munir Said Thalib, a celebrated Indonesian human rights lawyer.

Yet Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, which is only one year old, is already counted among the top political parties contesting this year’s elections. The party chairman, Suhardi, claims more than 13 million members, which would make it one of the biggest political parties in Indonesia.