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Indonesian presidential contender taken off Canberra visa black list

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EXCLUSIVE

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto addresses a rally in Jakarta earlier this year.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto addresses a rally in Jakarta earlier this year. Photo: Michael Bachelard

Australia has removed the name of one of Indonesia’s most controversial Suharto-era generals from a visa black list, in case he wins tomorrow's presidential election.

Prabowo Subianto, who was married to a daughter of Suharto, has returned from a period of ignominy and exile to make a spectacular entry into democratic politics.

In recent weeks he has drawn neck-and-neck with his rival, Joko Widodo, despite persistent allegations of discipline violations and human rights abuses during his time in the military, including while commanding Kopassus special forces in East Timor in the 1980s and heading the Kostrad strategic command in Jakarta at the time of his father-in-law’s downfall in 1998.

Mr Prabowo has admitted to abducting 23 student activists in Jakarta in the dying days of the Suharto regime, while denying all knowledge of why 13 of those activists have never resurfaced.

Such allegations led to visa bans in the United States, preventing him from attending his son’s  graduation in 2000.

They also led to a visa ban in Australia, which has not been publicly acknowledged, and which it seems Mr Prabowo has not tried to test.

"The formulation from high-ranking [Department of Foreign Affairs] officials has always been: ‘If he applied for one, he wouldn't get it’,” said Marcus Mietzner, an expert on elite Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.

The recent surge in Mr Prabowo's electoral fortunes, however, appears to have cured his visa troubles and ensured he will have no trouble attending the Brisbane G20 leaders' forum in November, should he be elected president.  

“The Australian government will work closely with whoever is elected president of Indonesia,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  “Presidents of Indonesia will always be welcome in Australia.”  

It is understood that Australian officials have been courting Mr Prabowo since last year, when he emerged as a serious political contender.

"They’ve been thinking about how to deal with it for quite a while,” said a former senior official. “Had he asked to come to Australia in, say, the last year or so, he would have been allowed to come. it would have been less clear whom he would have seen, although he would have had some senior contact.”

While Indonesian polls are notoriously difficult to read, the latest readings indicate that Mr Joko may have regained his edge in the dying days of the campaign.

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