Edbert Gani Suryahudaya is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia
On 22 May 2019, a furious crowd of protesters stormed the office of Indonesia’s Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) in response to the recently announced election results that granted Joko Widodo (Jokowi) his second term as president. For two intense days, the nation’s capital hung in the balance as police worked tirelessly to ease the volatile situation. The defeated camp, fuelled by populist rhetoric, vehemently rejected the legitimacy of the election results and prompted mass demonstrations. Fast forward five years and the leader of the loosing side, Prabowo Subianto, is making his third bid for the presidency. This time around, he finds an unlikely ally in his former rival, President Jokowi.
While the world’s gaze remains fixed on the impending elections in the United States and India, it is equally crucial to draw international attention to Indonesia, home to the world’s largest direct presidential election. Indonesia hosts one of the most complex elections in the world. On a single day, February 14th, over 204 million voters will cast their ballots, determining not only the President and Vice-President but also allocating 580 seats in the national legislature and 152 senators in the country’s regional representative council. Additionally, voters will decide on 19,882 regional legislative positions at both the provincial and district levels. A single voter is tasked with handling five distinct ballot papers filled with thousands of names from candidates across the nation. Indonesia employs a proportional open-list system, enabling voters to directly select the names of their preferred candidates. Adding to the complexity, in November, the country will conduct its simultaneous local leadership elections across 545 regions, encompassing 37 provinces, 415 districts, and 93 cities.
The most recent polls suggest that Prabowo Subianto, currently serving as Indonesia’s Defence Minister, is leading with a substantial 20% gap over the nearest competitor. The question of whether the competition will progress into a run-off, with no candidate securing more than 50% of votes, remains uncertain. Despite the notable lead, the other two contenders; Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Jakarta, and Ganjar Pranowo, a two-time governor of Central Java province, are determined to make every effort to thwart Prabowo’s bid for one-round victory. It appears highly probable that, in the event of a second round, these two candidates would form a coalition, regardless of who secures the second-place spot.
Joko Widodo’s unexpected alignment with Prabowo, his former adversary in the last two presidential elections, presents one of the most bewildering dynamics in the current electoral landscape. The president’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, was selected as Prabowo’s running mate, a move that followed a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Court of Indonesia to lower the minimum age requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The candidacy of the 36-year-old mayor of Surakarta in Central Java alongside Prabowo is widely interpreted as a clear indication of Jokowi’s endorsement of Prabowo who, in turn, has pledged to uphold all of the president’s legacies. During the campaign period, the President has been accused of utilising state resources and facilities to assist Prabowo in winning the election, sparking widespread protests from academics and civil society activists. This unlikely partnership, however, traces its origins back to 2019 when Joko Widodo extended an invitation to Prabowo to join his cabinet. This strategic move was aimed at easing tensions and ensuring political stability after the deep polarisation caused by the election.
Joko Widodo, once hailed as a champion of democracy, rose to prominence in 2014 ushering in a new era of hope for Indonesian democracy. He was perceived as an outsider to the entrenched national elites, with his political journey commencing from a direct local election in Surakarta. His trajectory exemplifies the possibility for anyone to ascend the political ladder, starting as a mayor, then progressing to become the governor of Jakarta, and ultimately ascending to the Presidency of Indonesia. This path has served as an inspiration for many emerging elites, encouraging them to follow suit by running for regional leadership roles and accruing experience in managing bureaucracies, laying the foundation for their future leadership aspirations. From relative obscurity, Jokowi has transformed into one of the most influential leaders of Indonesia.
However, Jokowi’s political success carries two significant implications. First, it poses a threat to the old elites. Inevitably, Jokowi has had to adopt a power-sharing strategy, recognising that consolidating power requires accommodating diverse political cleavages. Through this process, he has become a part of the very establishment he once challenged. Secondly, like many leaders worldwide, Jokowi is keen on cementing his own legacy. It would be a mistake to overlook his accomplishments in maintaining Indonesia’s economic growth and spearheading infrastructure development. His approval rating, exceeding 70% in his second term as President, speaks volumes about his widespread popularity. Motivated by a desire to perpetuate his achievements, Jokowi supports those willing to carry forward his legacy and maintain his influence in the next government.
The effects of Joko Widodo’s alignment with Prabowo necessitate a closer examination. One group significantly affected by this development is Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the largest party with the most seats in parliament. Prabowo, a former army general who has rebranded himself to attract younger voters (which account for 60% of the electorate), has garnered backing from a segment of Jokowi supporters, presenting a direct threat to the PDIP’s voter base. This shift also benefits Gerindra (Prabowo’s party) which, according to polls, appears poised to challenge PDIP domination of the legislature in the upcoming elections. Gerindra, originally established as Prabowo’s political vehicle, has been championing a return to the original 1945 Constitution. Achieving this would require undoing the amendments made between 1999 and 2002, which facilitated someone like Joko Widodo’ to ascend’s ascension to the Presidency in the first place.
The critical focus here should not be solely on the preservation or otherwise of Jokowi’s legacy but rather on the preservation of the democratic institutions that enable individuals like him to rise to power. This is the ultimate litmus test, focusing not necessarily on the election outcome but rather on post-election developments. Cultivating confidence in the democratic system involves ensuring that the winner refrains from gloating over the defeated. At the same time, the defeated party should gracefully concede and willingly assume a crucial role as a check on the elected government. Achieving the latter, however, is far more challenging in Indonesia than the former.
Personal politics has become deeply ingrained in Indonesia, with political support often aligning more with personalities than with ideological principles. Political parties frequently lack clear ideological identities, instead being shaped by clientelism characterised by elite consolidation through the distribution of state resources. Elections as a tool of accountability requires vigorous competition among challengers however threats to this function emerge when elites lack incentives to compete, resulting in a centralised consolidation of power. The expansive governing coalition in Indonesia over the past two decades, therefore, poses a precarious risk to the future of Indonesian democracy.
Indonesia requires diverse voices to step onto the stage. Observers of Indonesian politics are well aware that a crucial catalyst for the country’s democratisation has been the mobilisation of civil society. Throughout the nation’s history, dating back to the pre-independence era, the educated middle class has consistently driven political mobilisation. Indonesia is home to a dynamic civil society comprised of the educated middle classes, academics, students and pro-democracy activists who actively contribute to upholding democratic values across generations. The voices of non-partisan civil society groups are indispensable for the sustainability of democratic institutions and principles. In addition, there lies an opportunity for parties and candidates willing to channel the unspoken dissent of voters by encouraging the silent majority to actively participate in the democratic process, whether inside or outside the ballot box. This is, after all, the essence of elections – to present the public with new perspectives and possibilities.
The upcoming election in Indonesia demands close scrutiny as it carries implications for the trajectory of democracy in the Global South. As the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia represents a potential model for the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Within Southeast Asia, where non-democracies dominate, Indonesia stands as a beacon. Furthermore, the future leadership of a democratic Indonesia will significantly influence the regional dynamics of managing great power rivalries in the Indo-Pacific region. Active participation and leadership from the fourth-most populous country in the world on the global stage is imperative, especially in the era of a multipolar world. This endeavour begins with the maintenance and strengthening of democracy domestically. Democracy must prevail in Indonesia.
The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA