Indonesia votes for new president after a decade of Joko Widodo in power

Preliminary counts showed Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto — who is accused of committing serious human rights violations in the 1990s — in the lead

Indonesia Election
Volunteers carry cardboard ballot boxes to polling stations in Asmat, in southern Indonesia's Papua province, on February 13.ANTARA FOTO (via REUTERS)

Indonesia — the third-largest democracy on the planet — went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president and vice president, as well as parliamentary and local government representatives. Nearly 205 million people were eligible to vote. Indonesia President Joko Widodo ― widely known as Jokowi ― was not on the ballot. The president cannot run as he has served the maximum two terms allowed by the Indonesian Constitution: a total of 10 years. After polls closed, an unofficial tally showed Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in the lead, suggesting the former general may be able to avoid a runoff.

Presidential elections in the archipelago are traditionally a battle of personalities rather than political promises. Young voters are also likely to play an important role, as 52% of the electorate is under 40 years of age. Given the weight of the youth vote, the race for the Merdeka palace largely took place on social media, with the three presidential candidates trying to win over voters with live streams and viral dancers, instead of rallies.

The election front-runner, Subianto, who lost to Widodo in the 2014 and 2019 elections, is set to face serious accusations of human rights violations. Although no charges have ever been brought against the 72-year-old, his critics point out that he was involved in the kidnapping and torture of around 20 pro-democracy protesters in the 1990s, of whom more than a dozen are still missing.

The former general is also responsible for ordering some of the atrocities committed in East Timor and Papua during the Indonesian occupation. In 1998, as a result of these acts, he was dismissed from the army and sent into exile in Jordan. The United States even banned Subianto from entering the country. The veto, however, was lifted in 2020 when he became minister of defense.

Known for his fervent nationalism and strong temperament, Subianto has used social media to present a more charismatic and friendly side. He has also distanced himself from his previous dealings with more radical Islamic factions that cost him victory in 2019. On Instagram, he shares daily photos of his cats and private life to his nine million followers, while on TikTok, he has won over youngsters with his clumsy dance moves.

Nearly 80% of the Indonesian population has access to the internet, and people between 16 and 64 years old spend more than three hours a day on social media, according to the Digital 2023 report by the British company We Are Social. Data from the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) found that social media is the first source of information for 60% of Indonesian voters.

Subianto’s running mate is Gibran Rakabuming Raka, President Widodo’s firstborn son. Raka’s bid for vice president has faced controversy. In Indonesia, presidential and vice presidential candidates must be 40 or older. Raka, 36, fell below that threshold, but Indonesia’s Constitutional Court — led by Widodo’s brother-in-law — ruled in October that younger applicants could run if they had previously held public office. This is the case for Raka, who is the current mayor of Surakarta.

These moves have sparked concern about a possible erosion of democratic values in Indonesia, a country that freed itself from an authoritarian regime only 25 years ago. In 2014, Widodo became Indonesia’s first president from outside the country’s dynastic elites — a victory that was attributed to his charisma and moderate policies.

Analysts from the American think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argue that the decision to allow Widodo’s son to stand for vice president — despite not meeting the age requirements — indicates that the president will try to maintain his influence even after leaving office.

The other two presidential hopefuls are Anies Baswedan, 54, and Ganjar Pranowo, 55. The former is an academic and former governor of Jakarta, who represents the biggest break from Widodo. In 2017, he was accused of courting radical Islamic groups that fueled identity politics in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. His running mate is Muhaimin Iskandar, the leader of Indonesia’s main Islamic party.

Ganjar, for his part, was expected to be the favorite candidate to succeed Widodo. But the political influence of the former Central Java governor crumbled after the president began to tacitly support Subianto. Without Widodo’s backing, Ganjar — who comes from humble origins — tried to present himself as a man of the people, promising measures aimed at the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.

To win the election, a candidate needs to win a simple majority and at least 20% of the votes in more than half of the country’s provinces, which are spread over 17,000 islands. If there is no clear winner, a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes will be held in June. Last week’s polls by Indikator Politik and Lembaga Survei Indonesia predicted Subianto would win the election, with more than 51% of support.

Unemployment and quality of life are among the main concerns of young voters. Although the official unemployment rate stands at 5.32%, experts explain that this figure does not accurately reflect reality, since many people listed as employed only work a few hours a week and approximately 60% are in the informal sector. Youth unemployment has also increased in recent years: in 2023, 55% of the 7.86 million unemployed were aged between 15 and 24, a 10% rise compared to 2020.

During Widodo’s decade of leadership, Indonesia experienced stable economic growth and low inflation, as well as significant investment in industries linked to its abundant natural resources. For example, billions of dollars have been invested in nickel smelting, attracting battery and electric vehicle manufacturers such as China’s CATL and South Korea’s LG and Hyundai. However, economist say that, in recent years, more investment has been made in factories and technology than in job creation. The next administration — which will govern until 2029 — will need to find solutions to the growing use of automation and artificial intelligence, an issue that no candidate addressed in detail during the campaign.

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