An unlikely pairing in the presidential election campaign reveals serious challenges facing Indonesian democracy.
As Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s term comes to an end, Indonesia’s democratic decline is accelerating, as the country prepares for the presidential elections in 2024 — the fifth since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998.
The major political mystery of the year — which candidate would Jokowi back — was resolved definitively in mid-October when Indonesia’s Constitutional Court opened the way for Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to stand as the running mate of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto.
As well as setting up a dynastic succession of sorts, the pairing of Gibran with Prabowo is the culmination of a political reconciliation between former political rivals, Jokowi and Prabowo. More importantly, the decision brings into sharp focus the weakening of core democratic institutions under Jokowi’s presidency. When Jokowi spurned Ganjar Pranowo, the candidate of his own party, PDI-P, in favour of a ticket uniting Gibran with Prabowo, it was a sign of both the tightening grip of dynasties on Indonesian political life and the weakening of political parties.
A controversial Constitutional Court decision that cleared the way for Gibran to run was a sad coda to the story of a once great institution. In the years after its founding in 2003, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court was widely viewed as an important check on the executive and a major achievement of Indonesia’s reformasi movement.
But the decision to allow Gibran to run was a blatant exercise in political favouritism. The court essentially amended a legal clause prohibiting candidates under 40 from running by writing an exception — for candidates with experience as heads of regions — that was tailor-made to facilitate Gibran’s nomination. Gibran is mayor of Surakarta, the Central Java town where his father also began his political career.
Adding an element of farce, the court’s decision overruled a contrary decision handed down that same day, following intervention by the court’s chief justice — who happened to be Jokowi’s brother-in-law.
Other key checking institutions have suffered a similar fate under Jokowi. The Corruption Eradication Agency (KPK), once a beacon of independence and probity in a law enforcement landscape deeply infused with corruption, has increasingly become an instrument of the executive. Under Jokowi, the KPK has played a major role in investigating and prosecuting senior politicians in ways that consolidate the president’s coalition.
In November 2023, police charged KPK Chair Firli Bahuri — a man whose appointment was itself seen as part of politicians’ attempt to capture the institution — for allegedly taking a large bribe from a minister under investigation by the KPK. At the same time, the police investigation of Firli continues long-running police attempts to undermine the Commission.
More worrying are signs that the integrity of Indonesia’s elections may be threatened. Most observers agree that since Jokowi was elected in 2014, there has been a steady democratic decline. His presidency has featured increased use of coercion against opponents of the government — notably Islamists, but also liberal critics — targeted intervention in political parties, selective use of criminal prosecutions against bothersome coalition partners and reactivation of the military in several sectors of civilian life. For example, the Suharto-era institution of village-level military officers, Babinsa, play an increasing role in monitoring the work of government at the village and urban ward level.
Yet there was long a consensus among observers of Indonesian politics that, no matter how problematic such aspects of Indonesian democracy, the open and competitive character of Indonesian elections remained untouched. That consensus is now under challenge. Stories are accumulating of petty steps being taken by bureaucrats and security officials in Indonesia’s regions to obstruct Prabowo’s opponents and mobilise in favour of Prabowo and Gibran.
While these stories still need to be treated with caution, and are not without precedent in democratic Indonesia, in the past such interventions have mainly affected local elections. Now Prabowo’s rivals fear a more centralised effort to mobilise the state apparatus. Adding to the unease is that 271 of Indonesia’s regional government heads, including governors in many of the most populous provinces, are central government appointees rather than elected politicians — at least until the next round of regional elections in late 2024.
A Prabowo–Gibran victory appears the most likely outcome in 2024’s presidential election. This is not simply, or even mainly, because the government apparatus in the regions might influence the outcome. More importantly, Jokowi’s tacit endorsement counts a lot. The president remains extremely popular, still recording public approval ratings of around 75 per cent. Many Indonesians appreciate his Suharto-lite focus on economic development without the most authoritarian elements of Suharto’s rule, supplemented by growing allocations of social assistance. It is for this reason that Prabowo has reinvented himself as Jokowi’s number one public admirer and courted his son as his running mate so assiduously.
Their pairing puts Prabowo, a man with a deeply authoritarian political past, closer to the presidency. He was once Suharto’s son-in-law and the leader of a hard-line faction of the military during the final years of the Suharto regime. Observers of Indonesian politics debate whether Prabowo’s experience of compromise as a minister under Jokowi might have tempered the authoritarian instincts he acquired through his early political socialisation. Under Jokowi, Prabowo has largely ditched the fiery populist rhetoric with which he tried to win the presidency in 2014 and 2019.
Whether or not Prabowo has changed, it does not bode well for Indonesia’s democratic future that a new president with an authoritarian pedigree is likely to take office in conditions in which his predecessor has overseen the capture of previously independent control institutions, transformed the state apparatus into an instrument to pursue political advantage and significantly narrowed the space for political opposition.
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