What Indonesia’s Presidential Election Means for the World

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

What Indonesia’s Presidential Election Means for the World

Indonesia’s upcoming election presents an inflection point for the world’s third-largest democracy.

What Indonesia’s Presidential Election Means for the World
Credit: Depositphotos

Indonesia is a nation on the rise. Already the fourth-largest country by population, it was identified by Foreign Policy last year as one of six swing states that will decide the future of global politics, and its economy is projected to become the world’s sixth-largest by 2027.

Long derided as punching below its weight on the world stage, Indonesia is poised to become an increasingly important global player by virtue of its growing economic heft and geographic proximity to waterways that are vital to global trade and security in the Indo-Pacific. 

Indonesia’s ascendance isn’t a foregone conclusion, however. It faces daunting challenges that could derail its rise, such as creating sufficient jobs for its young and growing population and navigating an increasingly tense Indo-Pacific in which the likelihood of armed conflict is increasing.

Thus, Indonesia’s upcoming election presents an inflection point for the world’s largest Muslim country, also the world’s third-largest democracy. On February 14, voters will cast their ballots for presidential and legislative candidates, with the former drawing the lion’s share of attention due to the importance of the presidency in the Indonesian system. 

Three candidates – Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo, and Anies Baswedan – are vying to succeed President Joko Widodo, colloquially known as Jokowi. The term-limited president has spent much of his tenure focused domestically on economic development but became more active on foreign affairs during his second term, culminating in his country’s hosting of the G-20 summit in 2022.

As the candidates crisscross the country’s 6,000 inhabited islands to court voters, they have sought to differentiate themselves largely based on personality, not policy, as the former ultimately drives voter behavior. The policy conversation is overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues, with foreign policy issues downstream of them.

This isn’t to say that matters of state don’t register with Indonesians at all, though. The candidates have presented competing visions for their country’s role in the world, all of which seek to address and manage myriad international challenges – geopolitical competition, climate change, food security, and more – and their impact on economic and social welfare.

Prabowo, a retired general, would bring a nationalistic approach to office. As minister of defense, he has prioritized military modernization and supported defense spending increases. On the diplomatic front, he has promised to continue Indonesia’s “good neighbor” policy. Economically, he “[doesn’t] adhere to neoliberal view” and has historically backed protectionist policies. 

Ganjar, the former governor of Central Java, is largely untested on foreign affairs. As a politician in the mold of Jokowi, Ganjar has signaled a domestically oriented approach to international affairs. While his political party criticized the defense spending increases, he has been more coy about his own position, embracing defense modernization while promising a “free and active foreign policy.”

Anies, the former governor of Jakarta, is more tested than Ganjar on the world stage. He wants Indonesia to play a more “decisive role” globally and, in a tacit criticism of Jokowi’s approach, noted the importance of the president showing up internationally. He has also described Jokowi’s approach as “too pragmatic and transactional” while calling for a “values-based foreign policy.”

The candidates have taken relatively uniform positions on two issues of the day: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and geopolitical competition between the United States and China. All three support a Palestinian state – something the Indonesian population strongly supports. All three want to maintain positive relations with the U.S. and China instead of picking a side between the two, but there are also differences in their approaches to some China-related issues.

A Prabowo presidency may bring a more internationally engaged Indonesia, but also hold the country back if he reverts to his historically held views. Ganjar is signaling a greater global orientation, but his background and rhetoric also indicate a propensity toward sidelining foreign affairs in favor of domestic issues. Anies may be the most globally inclined of the three but could find himself overwhelmed by internal matters – as could Prabowo and Ganjar.

Polls show Prabowo with a wide lead, albeit one falling just short of the outright majority required to avoid a June runoff, while Anies and Ganjar are locked in a close contest for second place. Prabowo will start as the favorite to win, but the race would be a competitive one, especially if Anies and Ganjar unite behind whichever of them advances. 

Whomever prevails will need to answer a key question about Indonesia’s future: Will it continue to step confidently onto the global stage, or will it be held back by the nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism that have historically defined Indonesian political culture? If it is to effectively address the challenges it faces – and harness the opportunities presented to it – the first answer needs to win the day.