The world’s third largest democracy is facing highly fragmented elections. While they could result in a generational passing of the torch, nepotism and abuses of power persist.

Joan Villoslada

Democracies everywhere are clearly in decline. The world is undergoing an era of transformation, and humanity is facing challenges of unprecedented scale, from climate change to the effects of globalization, digitalization, the rise of populism and nationalism, or the dismantling of the unipolar world order.  

As a result of these challenges, among other reasons, democracy has been backsliding worldwide since 2005. According to a report by Freedom House, civil liberties and political rights have been in decline for 17 consecutive years, and, in 2022, freedom of press came under pressure in at least 157 countries.  

2024 will be a defining year for democracy and global politics

At the same time, 2024 will be a defining year for democracy and global politics. Some 64 nominally democratic countries will head to the polls in 2024, including the U.K., India, the Russian Federation, the U.S., and the E.U., which together account for 49% of the global population.  

Given the political importance of this election year for the democratic world, DoBetter is launching a series of articles analyzing the electoral situation in various countries around the globe and explaining the potential implications of their outcomes for the future of democracy.  

Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific giant

On February 14, the Republic of Indonesia will hold presidential elections, as well as legislative and regional ones. It is a paradigmatic example of a key country for the global economy where, depending on the outcome, democratic institutions could be severely damaged. Developments in Indonesia matter because of its strategic location at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is also a crucial country for the world economy. An exporter of oil and natural gas with strong textile, mining, rubber, and fertilizer industries, among others, it has seen an average annual GDP growth of 5.7% since 1999. With a population of 270 million people, it is moreover the world’s third largest democracy and its most populous Muslim-majority country.  

Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy and most populous Muslim-majority country

However, the Indonesian political landscape is a unique and highly complex case, making it impossible to pin down in black and white. The country was ruled by the military dictator Suharto for 32 years until his ouster in 1998. Since then, it has moved slowly toward democracy.  

The elites created during the Suharto dictatorship still control much of the political, judicial, and military apparatus and often use their influence to manipulate elections. Furthermore, the legislative elections are highly fragmented, with the largest political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), typically winning only around one-fifth of the seats in the House of Representatives. To govern effectively in such a fragmented legislature, the president must thus form a governing coalition of at least three parties. Since 1999, Indonesian politics has been characterized by increasingly large parliamentary coalitions that function more like cartels. 

Nevertheless, Joko Widodo’s victory in the 2014 elections broke the mold of manipulation by the political elites. Despite being the PDI-P candidate, Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, ran as a political outsider with no connection to them, offering a plurinationalist rhetoric grounded in the fight against corruption, poverty eradication, and economic development or “Jokowinomics.” Although he initially avoided sharing power with the old-guard parties, with just one-third of the seats, his party was soon stymied by the opposition. Eventually, he was forced to collaborate with Suharto-era politicians, in particular to push through his most ambitious projects, such as relocating Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to Nusantara, in eastern Borneo.  

Keeping it in the family

Over time, Jokowi has begun to govern similarly to his predecessors, embracing nepotism and abusing executive power. He used the $48.5 billion project to build the new capital to reward his political allies; his youngest son is now a candidate in the Jakarta provincial election; and his son-in-law is also running in North Sumatra.  

Although he remains extremely popular, Jokowi is no longer eligible for re-election. He is thus using his executive power to secure his political legacy. In this regard, he appears to have allied with his biggest rival, Prabowo Subianto, in a bid to govern Indonesia jointly. Indeed, Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is on the ballot as Subianto’s vice-presidential running mate. Although at 36, Gibran does not meet the minimum age requirement, a Constitutional Court judge (who is also Jokowi’s son-in-law) cleared the way for him to run

Although he is still extremely popular, the current president, Joko Widodo, is not eligible for re-election

For many Indonesians, Subianto, who is currently the minister of defense, symbolizes the 32 years of oppression under the former dictator Suharto. Subianto, who is Suharto’s son-in-law, has been accused of torturing activists and violating human rights in Timor-Leste during his father-in-law’s rule. He was dismissed from the military after assaulting the presidential palace to threaten Suharto’s successor in 1998. Subianto’s policy is to combine “the positive aspects of capitalism and socialism,” strengthening security and the military, and defending Indonesia’s strategic neutrality through his “good neighbor” policy. 

Subianto is currently leading in the polls, especially among young voters, who make up more than 60% of the electorate. This is in part due to Jokowi’s support and in part because Subianto mimics Jokowi’s policies and laid-back style, through careful social media posts. If Subianto can secure more than 50% of the vote, he will avoid the need for a run-off election. 

Renewal or continuity?

Subianto’s two main rivals are Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan. Pranowo is the official candidate of Jokowi’s party (PDI-P) and the current governor of Central Java. Like Jokowi, he casts himself as a political outsider and strives to project his predecessor’s charisma, making decisions that are popular among Islamists, such as banning the Israeli national soccer team from participating in the 2023 Under-20 World Cup in Bali. His foreign policy focuses on four key issues: the regression of democracy, global inequality, economic decline, and escalating conflicts

The candidate with the greatest chance of going up against Subianto in a run-off is Anies Baswedan, who is also a member of Jokowi’s government. He was previously Jokowi’s education minister and is the former governor of the capital, Jakarta. However, he decided to run for president separately from the PDI-P due to political differences, especially his disagreement with the decision to relocate Indonesia’s capital, his policy of religious tolerance, and his proposal to raise taxes on the rich. He also argues that Indonesia should take on a more active role in international politics, for example, by assuming the leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  

2024 will be the year of the generational passing of the torch in the Indonesian elections

Meanwhile, allegations have surfaced of subtle interference by state security agencies to prevent campaign activities by Pranowo and Baswedan to the benefit of Subianto and Gibran.  

Looking at the upcoming Indonesian elections, it is hard to tell whether the possible outcomes will mark a divergence or a continuation of the politics of the last 30 years. Although 60% of the population did not live through Suharto’s autocracy or the atrocities committed by the military, they are nevertheless frustrated with politics as usual. Hence, Jokowi’s enduring popularity: he broke the traditional mold of nepotism, inefficiency, and manipulation by Suharto-era elites.  

Yet the cycle is repeating itself, with Jokowi returning to those corrupt and nepotistic ways and abusing presidential power to secure his political legacy. In this sense, 2024 looks set to be the year of the generational passing of the torch in Indonesia’s elections. The old elite still chooses the candidates, creating political dynasties in which politicians’ children inherit office, and politicians will most likely end up selling out their ideological integrity in exchange for a cushy seat in the executive of the future governing coalition.  

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