By Kanupriya Kapoor and Jonathan Thatcher
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's autocratic former President Suharto left office in disgrace, his political empire and the economy in ruin, but 15 years later, his old ruling party hopes nostalgia for his legacy will sweep it back into power.
Indonesia, third largest of the world's democracies, and one of its youngest, heads to the polls in 2014, first to elect a parliament and then its first new president in 10 years.
Polls show the Golkar Party, which Suharto created as the parliamentary rubber stamp for his 32-year hardline rule, is running around second place.
After Suharto's fall from office in 1998, Golkar tried to distance itself from him. No more.
Now it's very positive, says Aburizal Bakrie, 67, head of Golkar and the party's presidential candidate next year.
Although in the end Suharto's rule became a byword for nepotism and greed, in its early days it won wide praise for strong economic management.
It is that success Golkar hopes voters will remember as a slowing economy dims the hopes of Indonesia's millions of poor, waiting for their turn to join the emerging middle class.
"People (in the villages) believe that Golkar ... has done a good job managing the economy during the Suharto era," Bakrie told Reuters in a rare interview on the cavernous 46th floor of the modernist Bakrie Tower, part of the vast family conglomerate that has made him one of Indonesia's richest men.
It is also one of Indonesia's most controversial corporate groups, with high levels of debt and a lack of transparency that have long prompted questions about its business practices.
A bitter public dispute with British financier Nat Rothschild over their joint coal venture Bumi Plc has spread that reputation internationally.
The fit-looking Bakrie, a keen tennis player, says he long ago stepped away from the business, except for advice on strategy, and even that would stop if he became president.
"I believe Golkar will get around 170 to 180 seats in parliament in the April general election. That is more than 30 percent (of total seats)."
That's well above the 20 percent a party needs to nominate a candidate for president next July.
Opinion polls suggest Bakrie is very optimistic and the biggest group of voters has yet to decide.
But with the fortunes of the scandal-hit ruling party of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in sharp decline, Golkar usually runs second in surveys.
Ahead is PDI-P, the party headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of founding President Sukarno, who was widely admired as a nationalist and orator but left the economy in shambles when he was effectively shoved from power by Suharto in 1965.
SUHARTO VS SUKARNO LEGACY
Asked if next year's election would be a battle between the Sukarno and Suharto legacies, Bakrie replied: "I don't think that you are wrong," but added he was also a fan of Sukarno and Indonesia's shift to democracy.
Suharto was 86 when he died in 2008.
"Golkar as a party will always succeed because at the grassroots level they have a lot of experience and support from people," said political analyst Effendi Ghazali.
Bakrie's electability was increasing as he travelled around Indonesia and ran frequent television advertisements, Ghazali said, adding, "I think a lot of people feel as though living in the Suharto era was better than now."
But he doubted that perception would win Bakrie the presidency.
Polls mostly show Bakrie lying a distant third.
Way out in front is Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, nicknamed 'Jokowi', who has captivated voters with his no-nonsense leadership of the sprawling capital.
What Jokowi does not yet have is a party, though many expect PDI-P to pick him.
Fresh on the national political scene, he is a marked change from Golkar's lineup of elderly Suharto-era stars.
Reports have been swirling in the media too of dissent in Golkar ranks, with some party leaders making no secret of their view that Bakrie is not the man to match Jokowi's common touch and huge popularity among Indonesia's mostly have-nots.
Bakrie is seen as a product of Indonesia's moneyed elite. He acknowledges the controversy associated with his name, invoking Thaksin Shinawatra, the embattled Thai politician and wealthy businessman behind years of recurring civil unrest in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
While Bakri does not compare himself to Thaksin, he said, "Even though the elite do not like Thaksin, the people voted for him or his sister or his new party. I haven't proven myself in an election but what I have already proven is that in every survey I'm always one of the top candidates."
And he pointed to the popularity of T-shirts and stickers displaying a smiling Suharto emblazoned with the question: "Things were better during my time, right?"
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)