Status: 29.11.2023, 15:32 PM
By: Sven Hauberg
Indonesia's president and his possible successor: Joko Widodo (front left) and Prabowo Subianto (front right) in Jakarta in 2019. © Ran Raphael/AFP
Next year, Indonesia will elect a new president, and now the election campaign begins. It could be a last gasp by the old elites.
How things can change. In the late 1990s, when the regime of Indonesia's long-time dictator Suharto was on its last legs, Prabowo ordered Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law and then high-ranking general, to hunt down democracy activists. Human rights activists accused him and his troops of torture, kidnapping and murder, and the United States refused to allow him to enter the country for years. Today, Prabowo is a star on TikTok, his short videos are clicked hundreds of thousands of times. Most of the time, the 72-year-old can be seen dancing, standing somewhat awkwardly in front of his followers and wiggling stiffly at the hips to the music. He calls it a "happy dance", and because Indonesia's population is very young and the memory of the bloody transition from dictatorship to democracy is slowly fading, the former military man could dance his way into the presidency next year despite his dark past.
Indonesia is a country of superlatives: with more than 17,000 islands, it is the largest island nation in the world, with almost 280 million people, the country with the fourth largest population and with the most Muslims. Around 205 million people will vote for a new president and a new parliament in mid-February next year. It will be the largest democratic elections in the world, which will take place on a single day. In India, the world's largest democracy, elections usually last several weeks.
Election campaign in Indonesia: President Joko Widodo continues to get involved
The election campaign began this week. Prabowo Subianto, the dancing ex-general, enters the race as the favorite, his team distributed free meals to schools in nine cities on Tuesday. Prabowo leads in all polls with around 40 percent. He is also likely to win a possible run-off election, which is scheduled for the end of June. As early as 2009, he wanted to become vice president, and later president twice. On both occasions, he was defeated by Joko Widodo, the current incumbent, who is popular with the people. Widodo was the first president since Indonesia's democratic revolution in 1998 to rule without the old elites; but he quickly had to realize that this was a hopeless endeavor. So he engaged the elites; he eventually made his bitter rival Prabowo Minister of Defense.
Observers therefore assume that if Prabowo becomes president next year, he will continue Widodo's policies. Widodo is even likely to support him, because he does not want to withdraw completely from politics – after his attempt to change the constitution to be able to run for a third term in office failed. It is his "moral obligation" to accompany the transition in the coming year in order to avert damage to the nation, Widodo said.
Either way, power is likely to remain in the family, at least for a while: Prabowo recently made Widodo's son Gibran Rakabuming Raka his candidate for vice president. Previously, the country's Supreme Court had amended the constitution specifically for this purpose, because the 36-year-old Raka is actually too young for the office. What is particularly piquant about this is that Widodo's father-in-law was presiding over the court when the decision was made.
Indonesia on the "threshold of an imminent generational change"
Prabowo's main challenger is Ganjar Pranowo (55), former provincial governor of Central Java and actually candidate of Widodo's ruling party. Ganjar had indignantly rejected his attempts to secure a third term in office as undemocratic. But he, too, wants to continue Widodo's policy to a large extent. He began campaigning in southern Papua, Indonesia's poorest province, where he listened to complaints from citizens on Tuesday about poor health care and broken roads. Anies Baswedan (54), the third and, according to polls, hopeless candidate, campaigned in a slum in the capital Jakarta, of which he was once governor. Once courting religious hardliners, Anies now promises moderate Muslims "perubahan" – change. The poor need to get richer without the rich getting poorer, he says.
At the heart of the Indonesian election campaign are issues such as high unemployment, still widespread poverty and the expansion of infrastructure. It is also about the question of whether the country should orient itself more towards China or the USA in the future. The People's Republic is Indonesia's largest trading partner; However, there are repeated clashes between naval vessels of the two countries in the South China Sea.
For Sana Jaffrey of the U.S. think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, however, it is also about the influence that the old elites will have in Indonesia in the future. The election brings the country to the "threshold of an imminent generational change" and may be "the last battle of the titans", i.e. the old men who determined the fate of the country for decades. However, the Indonesia expert doubts that too much will change in the country: "The tactics used to dominate politics in the world's third-largest democracy over the past two decades could outlast the original tacticians."