Indonesia Polls a Possible Return to Dynastic Politics
Prabowo the frontrunner with Jokowi’s agenda
By: Ainur Rohmah
Indonesia goes into its general election on February 14 with voters offered a choice between the mercurial former general Prabowo Subianto, a scion of the country’s old order stretching back to the strongman Suharto, or the former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, suspected of being a closet Islamist, and with Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java, having faded to a distant third. The country brings its creaking general electoral machinery into play with a massive 800,000 polling stations and six million election workers and a list of 204.8 million voters, 56 percent of them aged 22 to 30 years, electing lawmakers from national to regional to local levels. Total voters are estimated to reach 74 percent of the population, both at home and abroad.
The question foremost is whether the election is being stage-managed by the outgoing president, Joko Widodo, who remains phenomenally popular with the hoi polloi, but who has raised suspicions that, by law unable to seek a third five-year term, he is backing the 72-year -old Prabowo as a bridge to an eventual dynasty. The issue has gained added importance with international investors who regard the country as an investment opportunity for its US$1 trillion economy, a growing middle class, abundant natural resources, and a stable economy. It is prosperous and known for its tolerant brand of syncretic Islam.
Widodo is regarded as increasingly positioning himself as a figure not unlike Suharto, who ruled the country for 32 years amid massive corruption that continues to hamper the economy. By maneuvering his eldest son onto the Prabowo ticket, the Suharto echoes are unavoidable. The outgoing president has long admired Suharto and his emphasis on economic results in the form of sweeping infrastructure projects. This approach to development, which is rife with the risk of corruption, has been made easier by effectively allowing the once-feared Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and other safeguards to be weakened to the point of irrelevance.
Much has been made of the alliance with Prabowo, a former Suharto son-in-law and once-feared military figure from the so-called New Order era that ended in 1998 with the strongman’s downfall. In truth, the alliance is natural, as Widodo, known universally as Jokowi, has shown little interest in democracy, human rights, or press freedom. Should Prabowo and Gibran win at the polls, which seems likely, this election could come to be seen as the last gasp of the reform era.
Prabowo, who lost to Jokowi in the previous two presidential elections, named Jokowi’s 36-year-old son Gibran Rakabuming Raka as his vice-presidential running mate, thus doing little to dispel the doubts. Gibran’s only previous experience was as mayor of Solo in 2021. Previously he was an F&B entrepreneur. A Constitutional Court led by Jokowi's brother-in-law, Anwar Usman, removed the minimum age limit for vice presidential candidates, allegedly to smooth Gibran's steps to run, which got Anwar sacked from the court.
Despite a promise to end dynastic politics when he came to power in 2014, the critics say, the one-time humble furniture store owner is perpetuating them. In some ways, it is quite simple. Suharto was a quiet Javanese strongman not unlike Widodo. Those who saw Widodo as a pro-democracy reformer have been shown to be sadly deluded.
The latest results from the Populi Center and Indonesian Political Indicators, for example, put the Prabowo team ahead with 52.5 percent. However, observers caution that this figure is not absolute because the margin of error in the survey must still be taken into consideration as well as the possibility of changes in voters' attitudes approaching or on election day. The survey institute said this figure shows that the potential for a single-round election is getting bigger. According to the applicable law, the requirement for a one-round election is that a candidate pair obtains more than 50 percent of votes. Indikator Politik’s latest survey shows that despite a 20-point lead, Prabowo might not pull that off. If not, a second round would be held in June.
In backing Prabowo, Jokowi has forsaken the country’s most powerful political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known by its initials PDI-P, and enraged its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who gave the party’s backing to Ganjar. It was PDI-P that brought its electoral muscle to bear to elect Jokowi in the two previous elections in the first place. Nonetheless, he instead picked Prabowo, who heads his own Gerindra Party, according to political analysts, because he wanted the candidate who is most likely to continue his legacy. After 10 years in power, the president has left some things undone as time runs out.
The biggest of these is his new US$32 billion capital city, Nusantara, which is being built in halting steps 1,300 km and an island away from Jakarta in the undeveloped province of Kalimantan, with investors less than enthusiastic despite his efforts. He has sought to downstream the processing of Indonesia’s vast resources, particularly nickel, insisting that smelters be built locally to process ore. He embarked on a vast infrastructure development program, building airports – one of which he dedicated last week – as well as highways, ports, and other facilities, and from the time of his original inauguration has sought greater maritime autonomy in the North Natuna Sea, using air force jet fighters to drive out Chinese fishing vessels at one point.
Prabowo is the man he sees as most likely to continue those plans despite a decidedly spotty history. The upcoming election will be the third time the onetime special forces commander, a lieutenant general, has run. In a bout of reconciliation, Jokowi appointed him minister of defense in 2019 despite allegedly having played a role in the kidnapping and disappearance of students and activists who opposed Suharto's authoritarian regime. Nonetheless, Prabowo has gained popularity among Gen Z and millennials thanks to changing his image as a funny grandfather who likes dancing.
Before entering politics, Anies, Prabowo’s main challenger, served as chancellor at Paramadina University, Jakarta. He is now running a distant second, with 24 percent in the opinion polls. He was appointed Minister of Education in Jokowi’s first-term government, but after two years lost his job in a cabinet reshuffle. Anies has his own baggage. While his advisers, chiefly Thomas Lembong, Widodo's Harvard-educated one-time trade minister, have crafted a pro-business message that appeals to foreign investors, others point to his long-standing alliance with Islamist political elements. He is no friend of Jokowi, for instance, having publicly said he would like to take the government in “new directions,” possibly away from Jokowi’s massive and expensive infrastructure push.
Anies partnered with opposition parties to run for Jakarta governor in 2017, subsequently defeating the incumbent, Jokowi’s ally, a Chinese Christian, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok in a campaign that many critics said relied on Islamist radicals such as HTI and FPI, who took to the streets to successfully demand that Ahok be imprisoned for religious blasphemy. That process is said to have been the dirtiest, exploiting religious sentiment and creating severe divisions among the grassroots as well as earning Anies a reputation of distrust as a closet radical despite his US education and his appeal to K-Pop fans. Muhaimin Iskandar, his running mate, has more than 20 years of experience in politics. He has been a member of the people's representative council, minister, and since 2005 has been general chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), an Islam-based party that represents the traditionalist strand of Muslim society. Anies himself is not officially affiliated with any party.
Ganjar, who served as governor for two terms (2013-2023) following a legislative stint with the PDI-P, had the misfortune to run into Jokowi’s enmity by participating in the blocking of a visit by the Israeli national football team to Bali to compete in the U-20 World Cup 2023, which in turn sank Indonesia’s participation as well in a world sporting event. Ganjar is seen as having the same characteristics as Jokowi: a civilian with a down-to-earth communication style and coming from Central Java. However, his track record as governor is considered not to have made significant achievements and with little support for environmental sustainability. Ganjar is paired with Mahfud MD, who recently resigned from his position as Coordinating Minister for Law and Human Rights. Throughout his political career, Mahfud has sat in the executive, legislative and judicial positions. He is a senior figure of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia which has millions of members throughout the country.
Arya Fernandes, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said polarization in the 2024 elections still exists but has decreased drastically compared to previous elections. The campaign style of presidential candidates also tends to be peaceful and creative, especially to attract young voters. The spread of false news is no longer massive due to increasing public literacy. “In elections, polarization is inevitable. But the good thing now is that (campaigns) exploiting religious sentiment tend to fall drastically. So the situation is much better," said Arya in a public discussion recently.
Arya argues that this stable condition is greatly influenced by the weakening of the hardline Islamic groups, which in the 2014 and 2019 elections supported Prabowo. The government has disbanded several Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in 2017 and 2019 respectively. FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, who stirred religious sentiment in large demonstrations ahead of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial polls, was tried for violating the COVID-19 pandemic protocol and was only recently released from prison. Although he supports Anies, his movement no longer receives widespread attention.
In the final analysis, Prabowo/Widodo may indeed push government-backed infrastructure that could spur a measure of growth but many observers worry that that development, like the New Order era's period of expansion, will be opaque and beyond the reach of the reform era's checks and balances. Anies Baswedan, in the unlikely event he wins, raises fears that he would usher in an Islamic system not unlike those of current Gulf states. It is not a reassuring choice.