Indonesia’s Upcoming Presidential Elections are a Very Big Deal
Although the West is preoccupied with the European Parliament elections in June and the U.S. presidential elections in November, another significant election will be occurring later this month, when Indonesians go to the polls on February 14.
Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest population, with nearly 274 million people, which has been forecast to hit 300 million by 2050. The single-day election is the world’s largest demonstration of real democracy in action, determining both the presidency and vice presidency, as well as selecting almost 20,000 representatives of national, provincial, and district parliaments from a pool of a quarter-million candidates.
Why does it matter?
Indonesia is the world’s 15th largest economy, a ranking that is forecast to improve in the coming years. As the largest economy in Southeast Asia, its size and location make it strategically important to the United States and China as they compete for influence over the region. In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and stressed how he wanted to expand and strengthen cooperation with Indonesia. The following month, it was U.S. President Joe Biden’s turn to meet with Jokowi, with the United States upgrading Indonesia to the status of a Comprehensive Strategic Partner and the promise of further investment in the country and closer collaboration. The outcome on February 14 may therefore determine which superpower gains ascendancy in the region.
Who is competing?
The presidential contest has come down to a three-horse race between Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto; Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java; and Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta.
August polls reported Ganjar to be in the lead, with 37%, and holding a slim 1% lead over Prabowo, with Anies polling at around 20%. The latest poll conducted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at the end of December put Prabowo in the lead with 43.7%, with Ganjar down to 19.4% and Anies moving into second with 26.1%, with 10.9% undecided. However, with further debates planned between the candidates and their running mates, the race is far from over.
In the absence of an absolute majority, the two leading candidates will progress to a run-off in June. The estimated cost of a second round is $1.4 billion. Given Prabowo’s decisive lead, it would be a significant benefit to the country if he can gain over 50% of the vote in the first round, and thereby enable those funds to be put towards some of his planned initiatives for the country.
Prabowo has publicly said that Indonesia would not look to take sides between the United States and China. In November, he signed a defense partnership with the United States. A recent analysis by the CSIS viewed that his approach “aligns with U.S. interests and democratic values.” However, he has moderated his previous opposition to China in recent years, ensuring that there is a constructive relationship.
Ganjar is seen as more pro-China and his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have a history of close ties. In June, he praised Russia, China, and India for not following the West and saying that “Indonesia must follow suit, become the fourth country in this chain and fulfill our dreams in 2024,” potentially indicating a significant gulf between Indonesia and the United States should he win.
In early 2023, Ganjar was seen to commit a foreign policy gaffe when, several months before the recent events in Gaza, he refused to host Israeli teams for the FIFA U20 football championship. As a result, FIFA moved the games away from Indonesia, causing anger among fans and costing Indonesia an estimated $250 million in lost revenue.
Anies, who was educated in the United States, is seen to favor pivoting away from China towards the West.
Background of the three main candidates
After joining the army in 1970, Prabowo entered the Special Forces and rose to be commander under President Suharto. In 1998, Prabowo was accused of human rights abuses including the abduction of pro-democracy activists in the final months of Suharto’s rule, resulting in him being discharged from the military in 1998. Prabowo has stated that he was simply following orders and has since reinvented himself as a businessman.
He contested the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections but lost both times to Jokowi. Jokowi appointed him as Minister of Defense in 2019. In a similar vein, Prabowo has pledged to work with his erstwhile rivals if he were to win, saying that he is “committed to collaborating across the political spectrum to serve the Indonesian people” if he wins.
During the pandemic, the military was praised for the support that it provided to the government. In 2020, Prabowo was reported by CNN to be the most popular member of the cabinet.
During his first 18 months in the role, he conducted 20 foreign visits to 14 countries in a bid to formulate a 25-year Defense Acquisition Plan. This led to a defense partnership being signed with France in 2021, the aforementioned agreement with the United States, and an agreement with the UK for British-designed frigates to be built in Indonesia — showing his ability to deliver on key projects on the international stage. Within his election manifesto, he has also proposed ambitious domestic initiatives, such as a free lunch and milk program for schoolchildren in a bid to increase equality and literacy, part of a long-term strategy to enhance Indonesia’s competitiveness.
Prabowo is the former son-in-law of the late President Suharto, and his rivals have played on these links to the former regime, trying to portray him as elitist and out of touch with many Indonesian voters who are too young to remember the dark days of the Suharto years. However, a May poll reported that younger voters see Prabowo as the candidate that they would be most likely to support, not least due to his inclusiveness.
By contrast, Anies is viewed as a polarizing conservative Muslim, and Ganjar has been accused of trying to politicize religion with campaign advertisements that feature him at prayer. Prabowo has selected Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, as his running mate. This was initially criticised by his opponents who viewed Gibran as too inexperienced. However, Gibran was seen as the clear winner of the first debate between the vice presidential candidates, and his selection now appears to have been an inspired choice.
In a sign of his rehabilitation from the human rights allegations, Prabowo is even supported by Budiman Sudjatmiko, a pro-democracy activist, politician, and member of Ganjar’s PDI-P party. Likewise, even though Jokowi is also aligned with the PDI-P, he has endorsed Prabowo, rather than his fellow party member Ganjar, in a significant boost in the polls for Prabowo.
Ganjar entered public service in 2004, working on governmental special committees until he became governor of Central Java in 2013, a post to which he was re-elected in 2018. He is articulate, performs well when speaking to the public and media, and has a highly developed social media campaign. He was a dynamic leader during the pandemic, frequently being seen distributing medical support across the region, and gained popularity with his populist outreach to the communities.
However, in terms of delivering on policies, he has not performed so well at a regional level. Farming, and especially rice production, plays a crucial role in Central Java. One of his flagship initiatives was the introduction of farmers’ cards to ensure a more equitable allocation of resources, especially fertilizer. Despite being much heralded, the slow implementation of the policy meant that a year later, only 10% of farmers were benefitting from the scheme. Reuters reported how subsequent fraud and corruption has led to stockpiling and price manipulation.
During his first term as governor, farmers turned away from him at the polls, criticizing him for the fertilizer shortage and also for favoring industry and big business over the environment and farmers’ interests. In the most notorious of several controversies, he overrode the Supreme Court’s environmental concerns and local sentiment to approve the construction of a cement factory, leading to civil disruption and concerns at his disregard for the judicial process.
For the 2018 election, he brought in Taj Yasin Maimoen, a member of the Islamist United Development Party (PPP) and son of a famous Muslim cleric, as his running mate, and this pivot to Islam was seen as crucial to his success. His 2024 running mate, Mahfud MD, is also a traditionalist. He has publicly referred to LGBT Indonesians as demons that must be exterminated, and blamed wives for causing their husbands’ infidelities, telling a women’s group in September that wives put pressure on their husbands to live beyond their means, causing the men to stray and get involved in various schemes to earn extra income.
Ganjar’s roles before becoming governor were linked to several bribery scandals. In 2007, when the country’s central bank wanted support in passing bills regarding the banking industry, he accepted free flights and cash which he registered under the name “Ganjar Prastowo,” a tactic that raised doubts as to his subsequent protestations that he did not know that he had done anything wrong. Following the launch of a national e-KTP electronic ID-card project in 2010, Ganjar was accused in court of having taken bribes in the procurement process.
Anies served as Minister of Education and Culture under Jokowi from 2014 to 2016 and as the governor of Jakarta from 2017 to 2022. Overall, his performance as governor did not attract too much attention, although he was sued by residents who saw him as failing to do enough to stop the flooding that frequently hits Jakarta, with his solution being that “water from rainfall must be returned to Earth, as God wills it, instead of flowing out to the sea.” Concerns have been raised about opaque government procurement processes under his leadership, and he was also summoned in 2022 to answer questions relating to illicit payments for a Formula E car racing event in Jakarta. In the last few weeks, his campaign spokesperson, Indra Charismiadji, has been arrested for embezzlement and financial fraud.
Anies appears to be specifically targeting conservative Muslim voters with his choice of Muhaimin Iskandar as his running mate, mirroring his tactics in previous elections. Before his 2017 campaign for governor, Anies was seen as a moderate Muslim. A Guardian article reports how, as he competed against a popular ethnic Chinese Christian incumbent, he opted to “play the religion card and appeal to the Islamic base” as his best chance of winning.
In his mayoral inauguration speech, he was accused of racism when he used the word, “pribumi,” which specifically excludes Indonesians of Chinese and Arabic descent. Commentators warned that this language was likely to “stoke ethnic and religious tension” and was likely a deliberate tactic to play to his base supporters. Aleksius Jemadu, dean of political sciences at Pelita Harapan University, stated “I don’t think that you can categorize him [Baswedan] as a man of principle…He is quite pragmatic. Whatever benefits him he will take it, from one camp to another camp changing his principles, his values, all the way.”
Anies has positioned himself to be the change candidate, criticizing many policies of the current government, including Jokowi’s plan to construct a new capital city. His lecturer’s background was seen to help him to a strong performance in the first presidential debate, but this was mainly due to his criticism of others, rather than due to the strength of his policies. Comments on the night referred to how his “rhetorical side must still be accompanied by a substantive side” that has thus far been lacking.
The forthcoming presidential election in Indonesia transcends mere national interest, holding profound implications not only for the 277 million individuals directly under its sway but also for the global economic landscape and the delicate equilibrium of regional power dynamics. The nation stands at a pivotal juncture, grappling with the formidable task of navigating its diplomatic ties amidst the towering presences of China and the United States, all while confronting endemic challenges of poverty and underdevelopment.
In the political arena, Prabowo Subianto emerges as a figure of seasoned statesmanship, having adeptly softened his domestic image while simultaneously asserting a commanding presence on the global stage. As the incumbent Defense Minister, his tenure has been marked by the forging of pivotal agreements, showcasing his diplomatic acumen. In contrast, Ganjar Pranowo offers a fresh, media-savvy persona, appealing to the populace with his approachable style and populist rhetoric. However, his track record reveals a shortfall in executing significant initiatives and in articulating a vision that resonates with the aspirations of the world’s fourth-largest populace. Anies Baswedan, on the other hand, stands as a polarizing contender, championing an anti-establishment message that finds resonance among conservative Muslim factions, yet his policy proposals have faced scrutiny for their lack of depth and tangible outcomes.
Among these contenders, Prabowo is positioned as the frontrunner, embodying Indonesia’s most promising pathway to realizing its aspirations on both a domestic and international stage. A decisive victory exceeding 50% in the initial round would not only signify a strong mandate of unity for Indonesia but also enable the nation to channel its energies and resources towards substantive growth and development, circumventing the fiscal and societal costs of extended, contentious campaigning.