World's third largest democracy at a crossroads

Indonesia's former President Joko Widodo in the background
Indonesia's current president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is no longer allowed to stand for election. He supports the candidates Prabowo Subianto (bottom left) and his young running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka (bottom right), his son (image: Nadja Ritter)

On 14 February 2024, some 205 million Indonesians are going to the polls to choose a new president as well as new national and regional parliaments. Over the past 25 years, the nation with the world's largest Muslim population has evolved into a stable democracy. Yet observers now fear autocratic tendencies

By Christina Schott

One week before the biggest elections in Indonesia's history, around a dozen Indonesian universities have warned of setbacks for democracy. 

University lecturers from across the country appealed to incumbent President Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) to ensure free and fair elections. They accuse his government of – among other things – weakening the formerly robust KPK anti-corruption authority and facilitating the formation of new political and economic elites. 

These now control parliamentary decision-making processes, as well as the nation's natural resources. The academics also claim that freedom of speech risks being curtailed, for example, by new laws criminalising criticism of the president and state institutions.

"We've seen how political elites exploit laws to legitimise problematic political, social and economic decisions," explained Professor Ganjar Kurnia, Chair of the Academic Senate at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, in a public statement. In interview with the news platform, law professor Rachmad Safa'at from Brawijaya University in Malang went even further: "The problem is that Jokowi is establishing an authoritarian system. He has political control of the constitutional court (MK), the parliament, the army and the police. That's called personal authoritarian oligarchy."

Duo für die Präsidentschaftswahl Verteidigungsminister Prabowo Subianto (links) und sein junger Vizekandidat Gibran Rakabuming Raka
Presidential election duo: Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto (left) and his young running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36 (image: Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo/picture alliance)

Indonesia's ruling family?

It is indeed the case that last October, the constitutional court lowered the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to allow Jokowi's 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to run for the vice-presidency alongside presidential candidate and incumbent defence minister Prabowo Subianto. 

The court's most senior judge, a brother-in-law of Jokowi, was suspended over the controversial ruling. This has no legal impact on Raka's candidacy – nor does an ethics breach by the electoral commission, which registered Raka's candidacy before finally deciding on a minimum age.

The latest polls give 72-year-old Subianto a narrow 51 percent majority in the first round of voting alongside his running mate Raka, charged with wooing young voters in particular. Subianto's supporters laud the ex-general as a strongman who promises stability and intends to pursue the policies of the current government. 

But his opponents accuse him of responsibility for numerous human rights abuses during the Suharto era – including the abduction and murder of members of the opposition as well as the mass rape of ethnic Chinese women.

Preparing for elections is a logistical challenge. Packages of ballot papers in Surakarta
Preparing for elections is a logistical challenge in an island nation that spans three time zones. Packages of ballot papers in Surakarta (image: Garry Andrew Lotulung/Anadolu/picture alliance)

Widodo a disappointment

Subianto has entered the presidential race twice before in 2014 and 2019, losing on both occasions to Jokowi, his political opponent at the time. The latter gave his old arch-enemy a cabinet post, thus making the ex-general an ally. 

Incumbent President Jokowi has thrown his weight behind Subianto's campaign – instead of maintaining the customary neutrality or supporting his own PDI-P party candidate, Ganjar Pranowo. Consequently, opinion polls put Pranowo in third place behind the former Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan. 

Both are regarded as socially orientated democrats and both are hoping to garner the other's support in any second round of voting if Subianto fails to secure an absolute majority in the first. Unlike in past elections, religious issues are playing a negligible role in this campaign, although Baswedan is also being supported by radical Islamic groups.

NGOs have issued urgent warnings over the potential for fraud and attempts to influence the election. Using social media channels, they've been calling on people to attend polling booths with friends, to stay there until the votes are counted and even to document proceedings with their mobile phones. Human rights campaigners and climate activists who placed their faith in President Joko Widodo and voted him in 10 years ago are deeply disappointed.

Instead of delivering on his promise to reappraise crimes committed during the Suharto dictatorship, Widodo is cooperating with Prabowo Subianto, who was himself a leading figure in the military regime. Having promised to protect Indonesia's unique natural assets and support indigenous groups in their quest for greater rights, the current government has instead expanded plantation cultivation and, as one example, cranked up nickel mining with no regard for the environmental cost – to make batteries for German e-cars, among other things.

But the former furniture entrepreneur Jokowi has also achieved considerable political success: infrastructure has improved vastly during his 10 years in office, bureaucratic processes have become more streamlined, and the Indonesian economy has evolved into a highly attractive market for international investors. On an international level, Indonesia is now a respected member of G20 and serves a key function mediating in the conflict between China and the USA.

The country is also a partner in several environmental development projects such as the United Nation's Just Energy Transition Partnership. But despite all this, without greater social justice Indonesia's economy remains fragile, explains the chair of the National Commission on Violence Against Women, Andy Yentriyani: "It's questionable whether a country's macroeconomics can be used to reflect the actual state of a society," she says.

For this reason, a tricky balancing act awaits Indonesia's next government: on the one hand it must drive forward economic development to create sufficient jobs for the country's constantly growing population and reduce domestic poverty

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Education and social justice are top priority

Above all, this requires a reform of the nation's ailing education system, as well as greater social justice – particularly for women, religious minorities and indigenous ethnic groups. On the other, the state must halt the unbridled exploitation of natural resources and combat air and water pollution, which has become intolerable in many places, to prevent an imminent environmental implosion with devastating social consequences.

The future government must also either realise or scrap mega plans to move the country's capital from Jakarta to the jungle island of Borneo – arguably Jokowi's biggest legacy. 

"I still hope that current politicians will become statesmen who prioritise interests that are greater than themselves and their own party. Who commit themselves to long-term concerns to bring about meaningful improvements in society and not just for short-term personal gain," says human rights activist Andy Yentriyani. "But in view of the current situation, this hope appears somewhat utopian."

Christina Schott

© 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Christina Schott lived and worked as a freelance journalist in Indonesia and Southeast Asia for 20 years.