The Selling of Prabowo  

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  • Indonesia's presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures as he leaves a campaign rally in Ciparay near Bandung, West Java (7/3). REUTERS/Stringer

    Indonesia's presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gestures as he leaves a campaign rally in Ciparay near Bandung, West Java (7/3). REUTERS/Stringer

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Rob Allyn, Prabowo Subianto’s American spin doctor, has worked with politicians outside the United States before, not just in Indonesia.

    Allyn helped Mexico’s Vicente Fox win the country’s top job in 2000. That year, Fox knocked off the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had been in power for 71 years.

    In Indonesia today, where Prabowo is running for president against Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, Allyn has lined up with the candidate who seems more deeply entwined with the establishment. Both the Golkar Party, which dominated Indonesia for decades under the Suharto regime and the ruling Democratic Party, have joined Prabowo’s coalition.

    “I’m a businessman, not a politician,” Allyn told D Magazine in 2001.

    Mexico’s constitution prohibits outsiders from engaging with the country’s "political affairs.” Hundreds of journalists and human rights observers have been expelled under the law. But that didn’t stop Allyn.

    “Attuned to sensitivities in Mexico over the involvement of foreigners in the country's elections, Mr. Allyn traveled to Mexico under pseudonyms like José de Murga and Alberto Aguirre to advise Mr. Fox on polling, wardrobe and speeches,” Simon Romero wrote for The New York Times in 2005.

    “Since then, Mr. Allyn has branched out to work on campaigns in other countries. He counts among his clients the Golkar Party in Indonesia; the prime minister of the Bahamas, Perry Christie; and, most recently, Dumarsais Siméus, the Haitian-born Texas millionaire who aspires to be elected president of Haiti.”

    Allyn studied under Henry Kissinger at Georgetown, helped George W. Bush become governor of Texas in 1994 and consults for large corporations like Coca Cola.

    He returned to work for Fox in 2005 to lobby for Mexico’s interests in the United States - and assist Fox’s protege Felipe Calderon ahead of the next election, according to Mexican media. (Calderon’s people claimed they only ever spoke to Allyn informally.)

    At the time, Calderon was billing himself as honest and patriotic, but he wasn’t having much luck. So Calderon changed his tactics, launching a series of attack ads against his main rival, the popular Mexico City mayor Lopez Obrador. Calderon then surged in the polls.

    Narco News, an online newspaper covering the drug war from Latin America, described Allyn’s activities: “incendiary television spots, falsified public opinion polls, and ‘reports’ based on rumor and innuendo, to sow fear and loathing into the election campaign.”

    Allyn never admitted to the link with Calderon. But for many critics, the connection was clear enough. At the time, negative ads were “a new phenomenon in Mexican democracy,” Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in 2006. “There are fingerprints of US political electoral strategists all over [the election] because it’s not something that has traditionally been used.”

    Allyn is clearly a master of his craft. The D Magazine article depicted him making his pitch to Fox, taking him and his staff through a six-hour seminar on the history of political advertising. Fox was immediately sold.

    Allyn follows in the footsteps of Edward Bernays, widely regarded as “the father of public relations.” Bernays also plied his trade outside the United States. The United Fruit Company, for example, hired him to direct a disinformation campaign against Jacobo Arbenz, the Guatemalan president who tried to put through ambitious agrarian reforms in the 1950s. Arbenz was labeled a communist, and the US government intervened to overthrow him.

    Joko too has been labeled a communist - not to mention a secret Christian born of Chinese-Singaporean parents - in an Indonesian race for president that has been marred by more smears than any other.

    "It is very clear that this year's smear campaign against Jokowi is unprecedented in post-Suharto elections," Marcus Mietzner, a professor at Australian National University, told Tempo. "And it is equally clear that it is modeled around Republican campaigns against Democratic candidates in the US. Jokowi's depiction as a Singaporean and Christian is a direct copy of Obama's portrayal as a Kenyan and Muslim in 2008."

    Daniel Lund, an Obredor pollster, elaborated on the consequences of spin doctors' actions in his country. “US political consultants at their best produce mischief,” Lund explained. “They may know how to manipulate media, but do they contribute to the good governance of a country, to the democratic maturity of a nation? I would argue no.”