March 2024

Democratic backslide?

After a contentious former general secured victory in Indonesia’s presidential election, Yvonne Gill reflects on the future of democracy in the archipelago

Elections are the real test of a democracy. The exercise, however, becomes a herculean task when held across an archipelago with three time zones, spread over more than 17,000 islands, inhabited bymore than 270 million people belonging to well over 1,300 ethnic groups and tribes, proud of their rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Indonesia, strategically located between the Indian and Pacific oceans, went to the pollson February 14. Millions of people cast their votes, not only to elect their new President but also to choose some 20,000 people’s representatives tonational, provincial and district legislative bodies in the world’s third largest democracy. With 89 per cent of its people professing faith in Islam, it is also the largest Muslim country, although it has a secular constitution.

Prabowo Subianto
Human rights activists are worried President-elect Prabowo has an authoritarian streak

Prabowo Subianto, a controversial former general and incumbent Defence Minister, who ran for the Presidency,won hands down, polling 58 per cent of the votes, according to preliminary counts. Prabowo (72), who served under the country’s dictator, the late Suharto, and has been accused of human rights abuses, including kidnappings, forced disappearances, and war crimes by troops under his command, defeated his much younger and better qualified rivals Anies Baswedan (54), a former education minister and governor of Jakarta, and Ganjar Pranowo (55), a former governor of Central Java province and a nominee of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Anies and Ganjar got25.3 per cent and 16.6 per cent of the votes respectively.

Prabowo defeated his much younger and better qualified rivals Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo

The official result will only be announced afterthe votes are counted, which could take up to 35 days. The new president will take the oath on October 20 and will have to appoint his Cabinet within two weeks. But unless he has the confidence of Parliament, this will not be easy. The PDI-P will remain the largest party in the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) with 16.7 per cent of the vote, albeit 2.6 points fewer than its last tally. The Golkar Party is in second place with 14.8 per cent of the vote and Prabowo’s Gerindra party will be the third largest, with 13.7 per cent of the votes.

Jokowi worked his way up the hard way

Outgoing President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo trounced Prabowo Subianto twice in 2014 and 2019 elections. He later appointed his rival Defence Minister, in order to woo the support of Prabowo’s Gerindra party in Parliament. While quite popular among the masses, Jokowi had little influence within the PDI-P, which was controlled by the Sukarno clan and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Most leaders have dynastic control over their political party. Jokowi, who does not belong to any of the country’s political dynasties, worked his way up the hard way. Once at the top,he endeared himself to the electorate, charting a new path of rapid economic growth and infrastructure development. He was able to attract major Chinese companies and electric car giant Tesla to invest in the nation’s nickel mining industry,which supplies nearly half of global demand for the metal. Indonesia is also a major exporter of coal and palm oil.

Defying his own party, Jokowi backed Prabowo’s candidature and got him to agree to take Jokowi’s eldest son, 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his running mate for the Vice-President’s post. In a clever moveto secure his family’s hold on politics, Jokowi made his youngest son, Kaesang Pangarep, join the minor Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI). Three days later, Kaesang took over as the Chairman of PSI.


INCURSION: Chinese coast guard vessels have intruded into Indonesian waters near the Natuna Islands

However, since Kaesang was under 40, he was not eligible to contest for the Vice-President’s post. The Constitutional Court, presided over by Jokowi’s brother-in-law Gibran– mayor of the city of Surakarta – ruled on a reference that the age bar does not apply to elected officials. As he couldnot have run for the Presidency for a third time, Jokowi wanted his sons and other family members to gain a firm foothold in politics. Gibran, it is rumoured, could be appointed Defence Minister – a quid pro quo between Jokowi and Prabowo. Moreover, most of the credit for Prabowo’s victory should go to Jokowi’s charisma, as he continues to enjoy a high approval rating among the people.

Human rights activists are worried that Prabowo, a shrewd multi-millionaire businessman-turned politician, has an authoritarian streak in his style of governance. His approach to dealing with unrest in Papua and other islands is likely to be strong-armed, as he has little faith in resolving social problemspolitically.Indeed, during his election rallies, he talked about strengthening the police and the armed forces.

Even though climatechange and environmental degradation in the archipelago have global implications, Prabowo strongly believes in expanding agriculture to reduce Indonesia’s reliance on food imports. Even as Defence Minister,he oversaw the destruction of thousands of acres of forests in a futile attempt to boost rice production, environmental activists complain.

Indonesia’s economic prowess and strategic location makes it a country of special interest for both the US and China. Equipped with American weapons, it has one of the most powerful militaries in the region. It is also a leading member of ASEAN.  Indonesia’s EEZ of 200 nautical miles extends to the territory around the beautiful 272-island Natuna Regency, intersecting China’s so-called nine-dash line,which Beijing flouts toassert itsclaim to most of the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard vessels have intruded into Indonesian waters near the Natuna Islands where the Tuna offshore block and the Chim Sao oil and gas field is located. The Chinese have repeatedly been forced to retreat when the Indonesian naval vessels gather in strength in the Natuna Sea.

While China wants Indonesia to stop drilling for oil and natural gas in the region, the Indonesian government is going ahead with its development plans for the Tuna offshore gas field, which is close to the Indonesia-Vietnam maritime boundary. They have also signed an agreement with Vietnam to supply the oil drilled in the Tuna region via a subsea pipeline. The length of the gas pipeline to the boundary of Vietnam along the coast will be 11 km.It will continue 60 km into the mainland.

Jakarta’s policy towards China is unlikely to change after the new government takes charge in October. But will the new President be able to follow the path of development charted by his predecessor? Or will there be a backslide for the country’s nascent democracy, with the former general resorting to an authoritarian style of governance? Only time will tell.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London