What’s At Stake In Indonesia’s Presidential Election

An Indonesian man shows his inked finger after casting his ballot at a polling station during April’s parliamentary election CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MASYUDI S. FIRMANSYAH
An Indonesian man shows his inked finger after casting his ballot at a polling station during April’s parliamentary election CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MASYUDI S. FIRMANSYAH

As the world’s most populous Muslim nation — and the largest economy in Southeast Asia — gets ready to choose its new president, voters are split between an establishment candidate and a young political outsider, each with their own glaring flaws. Indonesia’s presidential election has deeply polarized the electorate, with rival candidates promising to steer the nation in seemingly opposite directions.

On Wednesday, the nation of 190 million voters will decide between Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of ex-dictator Suharto, and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a onetime furniture entrepreneur who skyrocketed from a post as a local mayor to become the governor of Jakarta, the nation’s capital. While Jokowi originally led Prabowo in the polls by a significant margin, the two are now neck in neck, promising a tight race.

Opposite Backgrounds

The political opponents’ backgrounds are as starkly opposed as their rhetoric. Jokowi was raised in a slum in the central Java town of Surakarta. In his tenure in city government, he reduced high crime rates and transformed Surakarta into an arts and culture hub popular with tourists, earning him third-place a 2012 competition to name the world’s top mayors. Through campaigning against corruption and promoting populist economic policies, the 53-year old political newcomer became known as a fair and honest public servant: a reputation he brought with him to the capital. While members of religious minorities traditionally threw their support behind Prabowo, whose mother and brother are both Christian, they have increasingly flocked to the Jokowi camp.


As a former military commander with close ties to the dictatorship that ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, Prabowo has political clout and wealth: the typical prerequisites for candidacy in Indonesia. This is Prabowo’s third bid for presidency, and polls from the past week suggest his nationalistic rhetoric and image as a strongman committed to enforcing law and order may win him the vote. While outgoing President Bambang Yudhoyono has brought the country a long ways in his 10 years of rule, his recent failure to meet the target of 7 percent annual economic growth and build desperately needed roads and ports even as mining companies rake in record profits has frustrated many Indonesians. Backed by a slick marketing machine funded by his tycoon brother, Prabowo’s message of bringing Indonesia’s valuable natural resources back under national control has resonated with many.

Democracy and Human Rights

Prabowo has also made his ambivalence to the current form of democracy clear. “How do we turn back the clock of history?” he asked supporters at a June 28 rally before criticizing direct elections. While Jokowi said the proposal to institute indirect election would be a “setback,” other Indonesians admire Prabowo’s image as a decisive leader. “A nation is respected by other countries because of its leader,” said a contractor in East Jakarta, explaining his support for Prabowo. “If the leader is assertive, we are going to be respected.”

On the other hand, supporters of Jokowi cite Indonesia’s long history of military rule as evidence that military strongmen aren’t interested in change. While Prabowo defends against accusations that he is opposed to democracy, some Indonesians warn that his involvement with Suharto’s authoritarian regime and illiberal public statements suggest he would roll back the stable democratic system achieved in the years since Suharto’s fall. Specifically, he has proposed restoring Indonesia’s 1945 constitution, removing many checks and balances and strengthening the presidency.

Additionally, Prabowo’s dismal human rights record — including overseeing forces that kidnapped pro-democracy activists during the final years of Suharto’s rule and his role in Indonesia’s rampant war crimes against East Timor — has gotten him banned from entering the U.S. “How do we expect a policy of human rights accountability from a person responsible for atrocities?” asked Haris Azhar, Executive Director of Indonesian human rights NGO KontraS. Prabowo supporters, however, claim he was merely following orders, or dismiss the accusations outright.

Jokowi’s Establishment Backers

The clear-cut distinction between Prabowo’s orthodoxy and Jokowi’s status as a maverick is blurred by Jokowi’s network of powerful, politically established backers. First and foremost among them is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the president of Indonesia from 2001–2004 and the leader of the nation’s biggest political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Megawati, who is the daughter of Indonesian’s first president, couldn’t be closer to the political establishment. “I made you [Jokowi] a presidential candidate. But you should remember that you are the party’s official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology,” she said in a recent nationwide TV broadcast. Many Indonesians criticize Megawati for doing little to stop corruption during her tenure as president and governing ineffectively, casting doubt for some that her protege could make meaningful improvements in these areas. Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch, argues that this doubt is unmerited. “Megawati realizes that it’s time for the so-called ‘old guard’ to give way to this new breed of local leaders who are going on to become national leaders,” he told ThinkProgress. “I think Megawati is one of the first old guard to realize it’s time to back down,” he added.

West Papuans Left Out

Although Jokowi received the endorsement of Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in West Papua are boycotting the elections because they believe neither candidate is committed to their rights. Indonesia has controlled the region, which makes up the Western half of the island of New Guinea, since a sham vote on independence in 1969 delivered control of West Papua to the Indonesian military. Since then, indigenous Papuans have lived in a virtual police state, frequently subject to arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killings that have claimed lives. Jokowi has gestured towards addressing Indonesia’s troubled relationship with the western region, launching his campaign in the provincial capital of Jayapura and promising to finally open the region to the media and NGOs. However, Benny Wenda, leader of the West Papua independence movement, believes Jokowi’s pledges of support are a tool to gain political support.


“Every candidate makes promises to West Papua,” Wenda told ThinkProgress over the phone. “We don’t trust any of the candidates. These are just empty promises. They look at West Papuans as second class citizens, and West Papua as a colony,” he added. “For the rest of Indonesia Jokowi might be good, but for West Papua he is not. He is the same.” Responding to recent reports that Indonesian soldiers have been arresting and torturing Papuans who refuse to vote, Wenda said, “they always force my people to vote, even though we don’t have any rights to make decisions.” For West Papua, Wenda believes that only independence will produce real change, holding out hope media coverage of Wednesday’s elections will boost international attention around the cause.

Harsono agrees that Jokowi is not taking a radically new or different approach when it comes to the island’s persecuted indigenous population. “Although Jokowi is trying to reach out to [West] Papua, it seem that he’s not getting into the main issue, which is human rights,” he said. “He’s talking about building better infrastructure, but I think he doesn’t get the point,” he added. “Neither of the candidates have mentioned the release of political prisoners.”


After the voting concluded, both candidates have declared victory in the polls. Though, as Aaron Connelly, a southeast Asia researcher at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told the Financial Times most objective observers believed Jokowi had won, “Mr Subianto has every right to wait for the final count and to contest the decision in the constitutional court.” The final results will be released in two weeks, and Indonesia’s Constitutional Court will hear disputes over the results in August, with a ruling towards the end of the month.