Indonesia’s Presidential Election: What You Need to Know

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Indonesia’s Presidential Election: What You Need to Know

The most important things to watch ahead of the world’s largest single-day poll on February 14.

Indonesia’s Presidential Election: What You Need to Know

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets supporters during his campaign rally in Lubuk Pakam, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

On February 14, Indonesia will hold the world’s largest single-day election. Up to 205 million eligible voters across the archipelago, from Banda Aceh to Merauke, will go to the polls to select the country’s next president, as well as choose executive and legislative representatives at other levels of government.

Three candidates are running for the presidency, a contest that has strangely flown under the radar in international press coverage, perhaps overshadowed by this year’s raft of elections in places like India, Pakistan, and the United States. But the outcome could have far-reaching effects on the nation’s economic and political trajectory, and its actions on the international stage. Here is all you need to know about the election.

Who Are the Three Candidates?

The leading candidate is Prabowo Subianto, 72, the current defense minister. A former general who rose high under the dictatorship of President Suharto, Prabowo is participating for the third time, after losing to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in both 2014 and 2019. Prabowo chairs the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) party, which endorsed him as its presidential candidate last year.

Perhaps heeding the dictum that if you can’t beat them, join them, Prabowo has this year sought to harness the popularity of his rival by appointing his son, 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice-presidential running-mate. He has also sanded down the edges of his public personality, shifting from a gruff ex-military man to a jolly avuncular figure who dances on stage at rallies and beams out cutesy TikTok videos. This he has twinned with ambitious economic pledges, such as the eradication of extreme poverty within two years of taking office, and the achievement of self-sufficiency in food and energy.

Competing against Prabowo are Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java, and Anies Baswedan, the ex-governor of Central Java. Ganjar, 55, has an outsider background similar to Jokowi, and the fact that he hails from outside the established circles of national power has made him a popular national figure. Most importantly, he enjoys the imprimatur of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the party that Jokowi represented in 2014 and 2019. Ganjar has sought to portray himself as a down-to-earth leader, and says that he will serve as “president of the people.” He has vowed to expand social welfare, clamp down on corruption, and ensure that at least one child in every household goes to university.

Ganjar’s vice-presidential running mate is Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s former coordinating security affairs minister and a former Constitutional Court judge. Ganjar’s team hopes that he will help the campaign capitalize on his links to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organization.

Anies, 54, who served as governor of Jakarta from 2017-2022, is hoping to replicate Jokowi’s trajectory from the leadership of the Indonesian capital to the presidency, while positioning himself as an alternative to the Jokowiist status quo. Among his many campaign pledges are promises to build 2 million public housing units, expedite forest rehabilitation and conservation efforts, and impose a wealth tax on Indonesia’s richest 100 people.

In early September, Anies chose Muhaimin Iskandar, who also has close ties to NU, as his running mate. Known commonly as Cak Imin, Muhaimin is head of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Indonesia’s largest Islamic party, and the nephew of the late Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur, a well-respected former president and religious leader.

The choice can be interpreted as an attempt to bolster his moderate Islamic bona fides in light of the controversies that surrounded his election to the Jakarta governorship in 2017. During that campaign, he capitalized on the surge in hardline Islamist sentiment against his opponent and then-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, who was spuriously accused, and later imprisoned, for blasphemy.

Will Prabowo Win in a Single Round?

For much of the past year, the former general has held a significant lead in public opinion polls, which has only widened since the announcement of Gibran as his vice-presidential running-mate in October – a move that many have viewed as a quiet endorsement by Jokowi. The question is whether he can break through the simple majority necessary to win the election outright and avoid a run-off election on June 26.

After lingering in the 40s for much of the campaign, the latest polls put him just over the line. At the end of January, polling agency Lingkaran Survei Indonesia showed Prabowo as the preferred choice of 50.7 percent of the 1,200 respondents surveyed. The latest poll from rival agency Indikator Politik Indonesia, which was conducted from January 28 to February 4, shows the Prabowo-Gibran ticket sitting at 51.8 percent, far ahead of Anies (24.1 percent) and Ganjar (19.6 percent). After factoring in the 4.5 percent of voters who remained undecided, Indikator predicted that Prabowo and Gibran would win 54 percent of the vote on February 14.

Given how close things are, however, there is a risk that even minor missteps in the final few days could make the difference between outright victory and a run-off – one where victory would not be foreordained. “With an election this close,” Yohanes Sulaiman of Indonesia’s Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani noted this week, “Prabowo and his team should be far more concerned about winning the election in round one than being overly confident and perhaps losing in a runoff months down the road.”

Will Recent Controversies Hurt the Campaign?

Throughout the campaign, the Prabowo candidacy has attracted its share of controversy. To begin with, Gibran was only able to become the ticket’s vice-presidential candidate after a Constitutional Court ruling in October, which created an exception to the legal minimum age of 40 for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, allowing younger officials who have held elected office at lower levels of government to run. This was widely viewed as a carve-out for Gibran, who has served as mayor of Surakarta in Central Java since 2020. Notably, the chief justice of the court at the time was Jokowi’s brother-in-law, Anwar Usman, who was subsequently demoted by an ethics panel for refusing to recuse himself from the case.

The ruling caused a huge stir in Indonesia and prompted allegations the president was abusing his influence to advantage his son and ensure that his power persists after he leaves office in October.

Other more minor transgressions have followed. The General Election Supervisory Agency announced last month that Gibran had violated a Jakarta regulation when he handed out free milk to children at a public “car-free day” in the Indonesian capital in December. Then, late last month, Gibran drew fire for his performance at the fourth televised presidential election debate. According to the Jakarta Post, many Indonesian social media users condemned his remarks as arrogant, and that he “significantly broke away from the traditional Javanese values of restraint and the courteous expression of opinion, unlike his older rivals.”

Shadowing all of this is Prabowo’s activities during the Suharto regime, when critics accuse him of various human rights violations, including the kidnapping of democracy activists during the regime’s final months in 1998. Prabowo has denied these accusations, and responded testily to any questioning along these lines. He was the one presidential candidate not to respond to a human rights questionnaire sent to the three campaigns by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

While these controversies have not prevented Prabowo and Gibran from rising in the polls, there is the possibility that they could sway undecided voters, and rob the candidate of a cherished single-round victory.

Which Way Will Indonesia’s Youth Fall?

The result of next week’s election will be determined above all by the decisions of young Indonesians. More than half of those eligible to vote are aged between 17 and 40, and about a third are under 30. This has prompted the three campaigns to go to considerable lengths to win the youth vote. This has involved both matters of style – jokey TikTok campaigns, free K-Pop ticket giveaways, and other Gen Z gimmicks – with policies promising to deliver on issues that matter to young people, such as unemployment, climate change, and institutional corruption. Jobs in particular are a hot-button issue. As Nikkei Asia notes, all three presidential candidates have each set ambitious targets for job creation: Prabowo has vowed to create 19 million new jobs during his term in office, Ganjar 17 million, and Anies 15 million.

So far, the majority of young voters seem to be supporting Prabowo, the eldest of the three candidates. A December survey by Indikator showed all three candidates virtually tied in support among voters aged 56 or older, but Prabowo was well ahead in every younger age category. This might be due to his youthful running mate. As the youngest person participating, Gibran has depicted himself “as the embodiment of youth aspiration,” who can bring an “image of freshness and vitality” to the campaign of the former general double his age.

Can Anies Capitalize on His Status as the “Change” Candidate?

One of the quirks of the election is that both Prabowo and Ganjar are running as continuity candidates, the former enjoying (or being perceived to enjoy) Jokowi’s blessing, and the latter running as the candidate of the ruling PDIP. This leaves only Anies with any room to oppose the political status quo. Trailing in the polls for most of the campaign, Anies and his team have leaned into this theme, depicting him as the candidate of change and renewal.

While Anies is not promising radical changes – his campaign platform is filled with the same pocket-book promises as his rivals’ – Anies is the only candidate not to pledge to continue Jokowi’s eye-wateringly expensive project to move the capital city from Jakarta to Kalimantan. He says that Indonesia has more “urgent needs,” and has argued that investment should be spread more equally across the islands. Anies even brought up the issue of Jokowi’s creeping authoritarianism in the first presidential debate as a way to frame the election as a choice between nepotism and authoritarianism on the one hand, and a return to the best recent practices of Indonesian democracy on the other.

This is a high-risk move, given Jokowi’s sky-high popularity ratings – but it appears to be working, with Anies rising into second place in recent opinion polls. This could be enough to get him into a run-off election with Prabowo in June. At that point, anything could happen.