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  • Orson Tan

The 2024 Indonesian Elections: Out with the “New” in with the Old

Updated: Mar 10

The 2024 Indonesia elections have gone as the earlier polls had predicted, with ex-general Prabowo Subianto coming out victorious in the Presidential elections, but this raises serious questions about the direction of democracy in the world's supposed third-largest democracy.


Image credits: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Last week, Indonesia conducted elections to elect its president, vice-president and members of the various legislatures. Often called the world’s third-largest democracy, the 2024 Indonesia general elections saw a total voter turnout of over 200 million people, with over 800 000 polling stations and over 1.5 million overseas voters. While the official results have yet to be released – the logistics of elections in a country made up of 6000 inhabited islands means it would take almost a month before election officials will have the results – Prabowo Subianto has come out to claim victory in the presidential election, presenting himself as the successor to the incredibly popular Joko Widodo.


In marketing, the saying “nostalgia sells” is reflective of the idea that people have a strong emotional connection to elements of their past and as such businesses can leverage this sense of familiarity to build a deeper connection with their consumers. While nostalgia was not seen as a key factor in the elections, it certainly did play a part in Prabowo’s victory. The nostalgia that Prabowo’s image brings up – the diehard Indonesian nationalist who is willing to fight for this country – seems to appeal to many in the country, and it has given Indonesian watchers a sense of déjà vu; a veritable blast from the past as the country seemed to take a step back in time.


There are two clear reasons for this sense of déjà vu. Firstly, Widodo, or Jokowi as he is commonly known, ascended to the presidency in 2014, two terms ago, on the back of a campaign against anti-corruption and more importantly, the lack of ties to the country’s military and political elite. In fact, Jokowi’s humble beginnings as a middle-class small businessman had seen him widely celebrated as a democratic reformerwho could help the country shed its long dalliance with political dynasties. Yet after two terms, and being constitutionally barred from running from a third, Jokowi’s meddling in the elections have proven that even those from outside the circle of elite are not immune from wanting to establish their families. Having fallen out with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the country’s largest political party, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri who is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, Jokowi chose to throw his support behind Prabowo, in an unlikely alliance with the man who has been his chief opponent in the two elections he had won.


The price for Jokowi’s support? His eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka was named as Prabowo’s running mate, and presumably the now Vice-President-Elect. To add further controversy, Gibran is only 36 years old, which by Indonesian law, was too young to run for the Vice-Presidency, until the law was changed by the country’s constitutional court to allow younger candidates to run if they had held elected regional office. Fittingly, the case before the constitutional court was a 5-4 split decision, and the Chief Justice who cast the deciding vote was Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law, who was later removed from his position by the courts for this conflict of interest. As Peter Mumford, a Southeast Asia analyst was quoted as saying anout Jokowi’s actions, “A famously non-dynastic politician is creating a dynasty. It is a 180-degree turn for someone who rose to power on his humble background and being a political outside.”


Indonesia has long struggled with political dynasties, a quick count shows that there are at least four political dynasties of note that are still active in all levels of Indonesian politics:

  1. The Sukarno dynasty – Sukarno and his daughter Megawati served as the first and fifth presidents respectively, while Megawati’s daughter, Puan Maharani is a Member of Parliament.

  2. The Suharto dynasty – Suharto was the second president, his son Hutomo Putra founded the Berkaya Party, while his daughter, Siti Hediati Hariyadi was a member of Golkan before jumping ship to Berkaya and then Prabowo’s Gerindra. Prabowo was also Suharto’s son-in-law, having previously been married to Siti Hediati.

  3. The Habibie dynasty – B.J. Habibie was the third president of Indonesia while his son, Ilham Akbar Habibie was a Member of Parliament.

  4. The Yudhoyono dynasty – Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the sixth president of Indonesia, his son Agus Harimurti is the current leader of Partai Demokrat, the party that his father founded and one of the largest opposition parties in the country.


Jokowi’s meddling in the elections to essentially entrench his family as the fifth political dynasty in the country – his younger son, Kaesang, has also entered politics – is seen as having handed victory to his previous rival. Jokowi has remained popular, with an 80% approval rate as president, and his endorsement of Prabowo while arranging for Gibran to be the running mate had assured that his followers would cast their votes for the pair. In doing so, it has once again entangled the Indonesian presidency in this cycle of dynasties, ensuring that the influence of the elite political families throughout all levels of Indonesian politics continue to be an issue. Although, given Prabowo’s estimated vote share of 58%, it would seem that the average Indonesian has no issue with that.


Secondly, Prabowo’s victory in the presidential election has also continued the influence of the military elite in the country’s politics. The first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto, were both military generals who had the support of the army. Prabowo himself was an army general who served as commander of special forces under Suharto.  Despite the democratic reforms that came about from the downfall of Suharto, the influence of the Indonesian military has never truly been excised from Indonesian politics. Prabowo’s victory thus ensures that the military’s influence once again extends to the highest political office in the country and paints a disturbing picture for the world’s supposed third-largest democracy, especially given Prabowo’s previous proclamations about rolling back the democratic reforms of the Reformasi. Letting the military regain its influence brings up questions about the fragility of Indonesia’s democracy, especially in a period where concerns about democratic backsliding have already been raised given the rising Islamisation and increasing sense of authoritarianism observed in the country.


Perhaps the most telling sign of the state of Indonesia’s democracy is in the size of Prabowo’s victory. Prabowo had claimed victory on the back of quick poll results released by independent pollsters after voting had closed. While not the official results, these quick polls have traditionally been very accurate, given the stringent methodology behind their sampling. The poll results put Prabowo at 58% compared to the estimated 25 % and 17% of his two rivals, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo. Anies, in particular, was seen as a strong rival, given his reputation as a conservative Islamist who campaigns on identity politics and the real threat of rising Islamisation of the nation. That Anies could not even garner half of the votes that Prabowo did seems to imply that the Islamisation is still not the biggest threat to Indonesian democracy. In fact, the willingness of the average voter to overlook the nepotistic political dynasties and the authoritarianism of military influence to hand presidency to Prabowo raises big questions about the direction of Indonesia’s democracy; it would seem that in this 2024 elections, it has been a case of “out with the new, in with the old”.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Orson Tan is senior research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

 

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