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Why Indonesia’s Democracy Is in Danger

Indonesian voters have made Prabowo Subianto, a special-forces commander with a dark past, their next president. Even as voters flocked to the polls, his election is a harbinger of democracy’s decline.

By Thomas B. Pepinsky

February 2024

Millions of voters in Indonesia, the world’s third-most-populous democracy, went to the polls on February 14 to choose their next president and members of parliament. Although the full results will not be known until early March, early counts show Prabowo Subianto handily defeating his two challengers for a first-round victory. His Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) is in a close race for second in the parliamentary contests. The Prabowo campaign is claiming victory; as he declared to his supporters on the evening of election day, “We should not be arrogant, we should not be proud, we should not be euphoric, we still have to be humble, this victory must be a victory for all Indonesian people.”

From a distance, this was a normal Indonesian election cycle, with three viable presidential tickets and an array of new and established parties vying for seats in parliament. Campaigning was peaceful, with televised presidential debates, rallies that appealed to the country’s massive youth vote, and colorful banners and posters displayed throughout the archipelago. But for many Indonesians, the voting itself was just one important milestone in an election that had already shaken the foundations of Indonesia’s constitutional order. Prabowo, who serves as minister of defense under incumbent president Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), is a former general who rose to prominence under Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime (1966–98). Prabowo’s campaign has tested Indonesia’s electoral laws and upended the norms of its presidential politics. With his dominance at the polls and the dwindling confidence in Indonesia’s political and judicial institutions to check executive authority, the outlook for Indonesian democracy in the coming years is grim.

Prabowo faced two opponents in this year’s contest: Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of Central Java, and Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Jakarta. Jokowi, who is broadly popular but term-limited after two five-year terms in office, threw his support behind Prabowo, most significantly because he nominated the president’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his running mate. Prabowo, with his wide name recognition, substantial campaign war chest, and boost from the president, polled far ahead of Ganjar and Anies throughout the campaign.

The three presidential candidates represented competing visions for Indonesian politics and society. Prabowo hails from an elite family who rose to prominence in the early independence period, and his brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo is one of Indonesia’s wealthiest and most prominent businessmen. Prabowo was once married to Suharto’s daughter Titiek, although they are long divorced, and he was a key ally of Suharto’s at the end of his reign. Under Suharto, Prabowo rose through the military’s ranks to become commander of the army’s special forces. In that capacity, he was directly involved in human-rights abuses during Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste (1975–99) and complicit in the violent events surrounding Suharto’s downfall in May 1998. Although he was dishonorably discharged from the military, Prabowo’s campaign invoked his military legacy and recent record as defense minister to portray him as a strong nationalist leader who prioritizes order, stability, and national greatness.

Prabowo ran unsuccessfully against Jokowi in 2014 and 2019, drawing on these same narratives and images, while also making appeals to conservative Muslims and religious identitarians. In 2024, it was Anies who focused on that segment of the electorate, while Ganjar appealed to the same pluralist and progressive constituency whom Jokowi had won. Ganjar, the chosen candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which supported Jokowi in 2014 and 2019, was especially popular among non-Muslim voters wary of Anies’s religious agenda, especially after Anies embraced Islamists in his campaign against a popular Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta in 2017. Ganjar did not, however, inherit Jokowi’s popularity, especially among young Indonesians; opinion polls showed young people to be squarely behind Prabowo and his 36-year-old running mate, Gibran.

Figure: Indonesia’s Younger Voters Support Prabowo

Millennials and Gen Z now make up more than half the electorate, and they are simply not old enough to remember Prabowo’s contentious rise and subsequent disgrace.

Given all this, the 2024 contest followed established patterns in the country’s politics. Religion and identity have been important cleavages in Indonesian politics since the independence period, and voters have mobilized around these cleavages in recent elections too. Even Prabowo’s candidacy is nothing new: In addition to running and losing in 2014 and 2019, he was active in the 2004 and 2009 elections as well.

In truth, most of the challenges facing Indonesian democracy long predate the current moment. They include the continued political dominance of the country’s wealthy elite, many of whom can trace their fortunes to the Suharto era or before; the oversized legislative coalitions required to govern in a multiparty presidential system, incentivizing legislative parties to collude rather than compete and minimizing the effectiveness of the rump parliamentary opposition; gross inequalities that produced marked differences in the quality of democracy across Indonesia; antipluralist and illiberal social forces; a military that remains stubbornly unwilling to cede full control of politics to civilian forces; high levels of official corruption; dynastic politics; and electoral clientelism and vote buying that distort representation and partisan politics from the local level on up.

Nevertheless, citizens have participated in free, fair, and competitive multiparty elections since 1999. Indonesians have witnessed several peaceful rotations of executive power, and elections have been hard-fought contests in which powerful challengers have conceded defeat, albeit sometimes begrudgingly. Indonesia’s civil society is robust and active, print media is largely open and often critical, and many political parties compete for popular support. As in any consolidated democracy, there is broad agreement that elections are the sole legitimate route to political power: They are, to quote Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, “the only game in town.” The risk of a catastrophic breakdown of representative institutions is low, as is the threat of violence of the type that rocked Indonesia during the turbulent 1960s.

But democratic consolidation requires that the rules of the game be known and fixed rather than malleable and subject to change at the whim of elites. Indonesian democracy is not as consolidated as its repeated elections have suggested. The trends have been worrisome for the past decade, with the 2024 election only deepening fears and the country looking more and more like a clear case of democratic backsliding. Jokowi has, for example, used the legal means at his disposal to clamp down on challenges to his authority of any variety.

During the 2024 election campaign, democratic decline accelerated because of decisions taken by ruling elites, especially the president himself — the first being his embrace of Prabowo as his chosen successor. Until now, presidents in post–New Order Indonesia have remained above electoral politics, a norm buttressed by legal limitations on presidents’ campaigning. Jokowi, however, openly stumped for Prabowo and Gibran, challenging longstanding interpretations of what a sitting president is allowed to do. Jokowi claims that presidents may campaign if they do not use state resources, as the letter of the law reads. But Anies and Ganjar say that Jokowi did just that, using state institutions such as the military and police — which ought to be neutral arbiters of the law, and which ought to show no partisan or political favoritism — against Prabowo’s opponents.

A more direct blow to Indonesian democracy arrived in October 2023, when the country’s Constitutional Court issued a stunning ruling about Gibran’s eligibility to run for vice-president. According to the Indonesian constitution, the minimum age for presidential candidates is 40. Gibran will be only 37 on inauguration day, and therefore ineligible to run under any regular interpretation of the constitution. But in October, the Constitutional Court handed down an opinion by Chief Justice Anwar Usman (who happens also to be Jokowi’s brother-in-law) which held that the age limit did not apply to any candidate who had previously served in a regional elected office, thereby allowing Gibran, who is mayor of Surakarta (known as Solo), to register as Prabowo’s running mate.

Although the public outcry against this decision was swift and substantial, and Anwar was subsequently found guilty of violating the court’s ethics code and demoted, Gibran’s candidacy was unaffected. The plain implication is that Indonesian constitutional law does not constrain elites seeking to circumvent it. Few would have seriously argued that Indonesian law treats the wealthy and powerful the same as it does regular Indonesians. Still, the Constitutional Court’s brazen decision to intervene on behalf of a sitting president’s son was shocking, and further proof that powerful interests with ties to state institutions and the country’s authoritarian past still direct the course of its politics.

For this reason, it is important to separate Prabowo the individual from the politics surrounding his campaign. Prabowo’s history, political style, and personality are worrisome: He has a famously short temper, and his actions over the years inspire little confidence in his commitment to democratic institutions, to liberal values such as freedom of speech and conscience, or to the rule of law. Although he does not have the crassness or brashness of a Rodrigo Duterte or Javier Milei, it is hard to predict how he will react to unfavorable news or to any legitimate democratic challenge. But like Duterte and other world leaders, Prabowo’s politics replace a commitment to law and order with a preference for order over the law. For the many observers who believed that it was Prabowo’s 2014 defeat that allowed Indonesian democracy to survive, his victory in 2024 is a harbinger of the country’s democratic decline.

But Indonesian democracy is more than just the attitudes and values of its political leaders. Presidents shape democratic politics, but they do not determine what democracy is. Democracy in Indonesia, as in any other country, is a political system that emerges from the actions of elites, the masses, and social groups together — working through established institutions, following norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance, and peacefully resolving legitimate political differences through the orderly rotation of power via free and fair elections. Institutions matter, but they are not self-directing; laws matter, but only when they are applied faithfully and in accordance with constitutional procedures and governing norms. Anwar, as chief justice, made his fateful decision on behalf of the Constitutional Court, the guardian of the constitution, for the benefit of Jokowi and his family as well as Prabowo himself.

So it is unsurprising that in the final days before the election, Prabowo’s opponents feared that other state institutions, such as the armed forces and the electoral commission, would be similarly vulnerable to political manipulation on election day. Given that Prabowo’s campaign, which worried about a possible unified anti-Prabowo ticket in a second round, predicted a single-round victory, the other campaigns were afraid that electoral and security institutions might tilt the first-round balloting in Prabowo’s favor so as to avoid a runoff.

Although it is still early, there is no evidence of any systematic irregularities. But representatives from the Anies and Ganjar campaigns are pledging to investigate the electoral process nevertheless, claiming that the election was marred by “structural, systematic and massive fraud.” Worryingly, Anies has been reported to authorities for commenting on a film released on February 11 that alleges the electoral process was subject to manipulation by Prabowo backers.

In November 2023, just after the Constitutional Court’s decision, Indonesian journalist Goenawan Mohamad sat for an interview on KompasTV, a mainstream news channel. Known as a sharp-witted critic and thoughtful political analyst with decades of experience, Goenawan described the Indonesian state as “broken” (rusak). Although his use of this word received wide attention, less noted was what he used rusak to modify: not politics or elections or institutions, but the state (negeri) itself. And the term negeri refers to more than just the state in a formal sense. It connotes something closer to the state and society together — the country, its institutions, and its people. Goenawan was describing not just a crisis of democracy, but a crisis of Indonesia.

Thomas B. Pepinsky is the Walter F. LaFeber Professor of Government and Public Policy and director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP PHOTO/AFP via Getty Images




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