A Litmus Test for Indonesian Democracy

Recent Features


A Litmus Test for Indonesian Democracy

As Prabowo’s remarkable rise from disgraced exile to likely next president attests, in Indonesia things once thought buried can yet rise again.

A Litmus Test for Indonesian Democracy
Credit: Facebook / Prabowo Subianto

“This is the most pressure Indonesian democracy has been under since the end of Suharto,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Indonesia. The world’s third-largest democracy, he believes, is under threat. 

Since the end of New Order dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia has been a real democratic success story. In a region that has seen many democratic leaders overturned in coups or gradually morph into authoritarian strongmen, the country has avoided that fate. Now, Harsono fears that this hard-won achievement is being eroded.

With Indonesia’s presidential election due February 14, Prabowo Subianto – Indonesia’s defense minister and son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto – is the odds-on favorite to win. By securing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his running mate, Prabowo has become the president’s heir presumptive. 

Worryingly, state institutions – including the police and the courts – seem to be working to help ensure this is the case. This, combined with Prabowo’s own checkered past, raises serious questions about the trajectory of Indonesia’s democracy.

Recent polls have put Prabowo and Gibran far ahead of their rivals, their support hovering around the mid-40s. Meanwhile, their two opponents  – the former governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, and the former governor of Jakarta, Anies Basweda, have struggled to make an impact, with most polls putting their support in the low 20s.

Jokowi’s sky-high approval ratings – 76.2 percent in a recent poll – has allowed him to shape the upcoming presidential campaign to a remarkable degree. Ganjar led the polls when the president seemed to favor him, only for Prabowo’s campaign to take off when Jokowi began to signal his support had shifted.

Disturbingly, support for Prabowo also seems to be coming from supposedly neutral state institutions. Gibran was only able to become Prabowo’s running mate due to a last-minute ruling by the Constitutional Court. Under Indonesian law, 36-year-old Gibran was ineligible to run, the minimum age being 40. Just three days before candidates could register, however, the court issued a ruling that carved out an exception for persons with experience in political office, such as mayor. Gibran, it just so happened, had served since 2021 as mayor of Surakarta, also known as Solo – his father’s hometown.

The fact that the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Anwar Usman, is married to Jokowi’s sister did not pass unnoticed. Anwar has since been censured for ethics violations by fellow justices, stripped of his role as chief justice but not dismissed from the court, and banned from ruling on election cases. The panel not only found him to have violated rules governing conflicts of interest but also said he had misclassified two dissenting opinions as concurring – crudely turning a majority against allowing the exception into a majority for it. Yet, despite the censure the nomination still stands.

The case also signaled decisively to the electorate that the president’s preference had shifted away from the previously favored Ganjar, hitting his campaign hard. Ganjar’s image had hinged on seeming like the president’s natural heir: both coming from outside of the political elite (Ganjar’s father was a policeman), and both members of the PDI-P, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. Hints dropped by the president about his preferences are widely seen as having helped Ganjar secure the nomination from the PDI-P.

The court case threw the race in chaos.