Defense Minister Prabowo Holds Strong Lead in Early Counts of Indonesia’s Presidential Race

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Defense Minister Prabowo Holds Strong Lead in Early Counts of Indonesia’s Presidential Race

The unofficial quick count results have the former general on track to avoid a run-off in the three-way race for president.

Defense Minister Prabowo Holds Strong Lead in Early Counts of Indonesia’s Presidential Race

Supporters hold posters with Prabowo Subianto’s picture during his final campaign rally, Feb. 10, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/ Prabowo Subianto

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto held a commanding lead in early, unofficial tallies of Indonesia’s presidential race Wednesday, potentially putting the former general on a path to claim victory in a three-way race to lead the world’s third-largest democracy.

The 72-year-old candidate is a link to the brutal period of dictatorship that ended just over 25 years ago, when he served as a special forces commander in a unit linked to torture and disappearances, allegations that Prabowo denies.

He has presented himself as an heir to immensely popular sitting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, whose son Prabowo chose as his running mate.

According to early, unofficial tallies conducted by Indonesian polling agencies, Prabowo had between 57 percent and 59 percent of votes, with more than 80 percent of the vote counted in polling places sampled.

The quick counts are based on the actual vote count at a sample of polling stations across Indonesia. The laborious official count may not be finished for up to a month, but quick counts have provided an accurate picture of the results of all four presidential elections held in Indonesia since it began direct voting in 2004.

To avoid a runoff against his rivals — two former provincial governors, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo — Prabowo will need more than 50 percent of all votes cast and at least 20 percent in each of the country’s provinces.

Prabowo was expected to appear before enthusiastic supporters at a packed Jakarta sports hall later in the evening.

Jokowi’s successor will inherit an economy with impressive growth and ambitious infrastructure projects, including the ongoing transfer of the nation’s capital from congested Jakarta to the frontier island of Borneo at a staggering cost exceeding $30 billion.

The election also has high stakes for the United States and China, since Indonesia has a huge domestic market, natural resources like nickel and palm oil, and diplomatic influence with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Jokowi’s rise from a riverside slum to the presidency has shown the vibrancy of Indonesia’s democracy in a region rife with authoritarian regimes.

But with a leading candidate linked to a former dictator, and Jokowi’s son on the ballot, some observers fear that democracy is eroding.

Indonesians voted on Wednesday in an election that took just six hours. The logistics of the vote across the tropical nation’s 17,000 islands inhabited by 270 million people were daunting: Ballot boxes and ballots were transported by boats, motorcycles, horses, and on foot in some of the more far-flung locations.

Aside from the presidency, some 20,000 national, provincial, and district parliamentary posts were contested by tens of thousands of candidates in one of the world’s largest elections, which authorities said concluded with no major problems. About 10,000 aspirants from 18 political parties eyed the national parliament’s 580 seats alone.

Voters interviewed by The Associated Press expressed hope their next leader would help them achieve greater prosperity in a country where nearly a tenth of the population still lives in poverty.

“I hope Indonesia can progress better and that I did not vote for the wrong person,” said Indra Nurohim, a 17-year-old high school student and first-time voter. “I hope we will have a better government.”

Prabowo, the oldest presidential candidate at 72, lost in two previous runs to Jokowi but was the front-runner in independent surveys. He picked Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice-presidential running mate in a move meant to shore up his chances given the outgoing president’s popularity.

Gibran, 36, was allowed to run when the Constitutional Court made an exception to the minimum age requirement of 40. The court was then headed by Jokowi’s brother-in-law, who was removed by an ethics panel for not recusing himself, and Jokowi was accused of favoritism and nepotism.

Critics have accused Jokowi of trying to build a political dynasty despite his being the first president to emerge from outside the political and military elite since the 1998 end of the dictatorial rule of Suharto, which was characterized by widespread human rights violations, plunder, and political unrest.

Prabowo, a former lieutenant general who married one of Suharto’s daughters, was a longtime commander in the army special forces, called Kopassus. He was dishonorably discharged in 1998 after Kopassus forces kidnapped and tortured political opponents of Suharto.

Of at least 22 activists kidnapped that year, 13 remain missing to this day, and their families protest weekly outside the presidential palace demanding the activists be accounted for. Prabowo never faced a trial and denied any involvement, although several of his men were tried and convicted. His candidacy was firmly rejected by human rights activists.

During the campaign period that concluded last weekend, Prabowo and his strategists used AI and social media platforms like TikTok to soften his image by portraying him as a cuddly grandfather to his youthful running mate. He danced on the campaign stage and promised to generate nearly 20 million jobs in his first term if elected.

Anies Baswedan, the former head of an Islamic university, served as governor of Jakarta until last year. A former Fulbright scholar, Anies was education and culture minister from 2014 to 2016, when Jokowi removed him from the Cabinet after accusing him of failing to address problems of thousands of students affected by forest fires.

Anies opposes Jokowi’s plan to move the Indonesian capital from Jakarta to Nusantara on Borneo island, which involves constructing government buildings and residential enclaves by clearing lush tropical rainforests.

In an interview with the AP last month, he said democracy in Indonesia is under threat, given Prabowo’s choice of the president’s son as running mate.

“This means that there is a decline in trust, it means that our democracy is experiencing a decline in quality, it means that many legal rules are being bent,” he said.

Ganjar Pranowo is the governing party candidate but does not have Jokowi’s support. He was a national legislator for the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle for 10 years before being elected in 2013 for the first of two terms as governor of the vote-rich Central Java region.

While governor, Ganjar refused to allow Israel to participate in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup to be held in his province. FIFA subsequently dropped Indonesia as host of the games, angering Indonesian soccer fans and Jokowi.

Israel and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, do not have diplomatic ties.

Under Jokowi, Indonesia saw a period of remarkable growth averaging 5 percent annually, except in 2020, when the economy contracted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

His economic roadmap, called “Golden Indonesia 2045,” projects Indonesia becoming one of the world’s top five economies with GDP of up to $9 trillion, exactly a century after it won independence from Dutch colonizers.