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The final results of Indonesia’s elections are not yet in, but it’s clear that the next president of this country of 270 million people will be Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo, as he’s known, is a man with a checkered past. A key military officer in the dictatorial regime of Suharto, he has been implicated in the massacres of civilians since the 1980s. The ex-general has long aspired to the presidency, but the role has eluded him — until now.

Prabowo’s success is due to a number of factors, including his rebranding on TikTok as a cuddly grandpa. But most decisive was “the Jokowi factor,” says Jacqui Baker of Australia’s Murdoch University in the latest episode of our flagship podcast The Pivot.

Listen to this episode of The Pivot on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Audacy, Google Podcasts, iHeart RadioPocket CastsRadioPublicSpotify, TuneIn Radio, or YouTube Music.

Jokowi and Indonesia’s Game of Thrones

Jokowi — the nickname by which Indonesia’s outgoing president Joko Widodo is known — is barred by term limits from running again. With his popularity rating close to 80 percent, Jokowi could handily win another term. He’s instead had to play the role of kingmaker, a status that was unlikely when he rose to power in 2014.

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When became president in 2014, he was seen as an outsider without the tools needed to thrive on his own at the national level in Indonesia’s oligarchic, dynastic political system.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first president and head of Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Baker says, saw him as “nothing but a mere member of the party.” The plan was for Jokowi to rule in name, while Megawati would call the shots from behind the scenes, like India’s Sonia Gandhi.

But Jokowi ended up amassing popular support, which has remained sky-high throughout his tenure. And he’s mastered the art of intra-elite political wrangling. A “classic” Jokowi tactic, according to Baker, is to pacify his rivals by bringing them “on board to his agenda by sharing out the spoils of power.”

Joko Widodo and Megawati
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center) hosts a dinner with the party leaders of his coalition, including Megawati Sukarnoputri and Muhaimin Iskandar. (Image Credit: Office of President Joko Widodo)

He did exactly that with Prabowo — an aristocrat and former son-in-law of Suharto who lost two elections to Jokowi, bringing him into his cabinet in 2019 to serve as defense minister. Jokowi so excelled at this strategy that his era was marked by the effective absence of a political opposition.

In his final months in office, Jokowi aspires to join the ranks of Indonesia’s political dynasts. He’s hedged his bets: one son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, was Prabowo’s running mate in this month’s elections and will serve as vice president; another son, Kaesang Pangarep, leads a small, youth-oriented political party.

Baker of Murdoch University isn’t bullish on either two. And while Jokowi’s magic touch pushed Prabowo above the 50 percent mark in the election’s first round, avoiding a run-off, it’s unclear whether Jokowi’s influence will endure post-presidency. Prabowo is a wily political operator and has his family’s wealth to finance his machine.

Jokowi hasn’t quite amassed wealth on the scale of Indonesia’s other dynastic leaders, Baker notes. Post-presidency, that’s a disadvantage in the power game in Indonesia, one of the most unequal societies in Southeast Asia. Politics in Indonesia is about the nexus of money and political power, of oligarchs, dynasties, and oligarchic dynasties. Of this system, Baker says, “it really does feel like a kind of cartel effectively runs the country.”

How Resilient Is Indonesia’s Democracy?

Prabowo will assume the presidency later this year. He clearly has no love for democracy. Writing for The Intercept, journalist Allan Nairn recalls Prabowo telling him in a 2001 interview that “Indonesia is not ready for democracy” and it instead needs “a benign authoritarian regime.”

So, is Prabowo a changed man? It’s hard to say. Baker says shades of the old Prabowo — the Prabowo prior to the cuddly (gemoy) TikTok rebranding — sometimes came on display on the campaign trail. When provoked, the 72-year-old politician would engage in “angry thumping around” about the loss of Indonesia’s sovereignty and foreigners taking the country’s land. She suspects there may be “an internal Prabowo who may be busting to get out” once in office — “a Prabowo that is deeply authoritarian.”

Prabowo Subianto plays polo at the Nusantara Polo Club. (Image Credit: Office of Prabowo Subianto)

Prabowo, Baker says, “does not believe that democracy is appropriate in a country like Indonesia.” But even if Prabowo is a wolf in gemoy’s clothing, Baker believes the Indonesian system is resilient enough to endure a direct assault. Indeed, public opinion surveys by the Lowy Institute over the past two decades show a consistent majority of around 60 percent of Indonesians see democracy as the best system for their country.

Prabowo is instead more likely to collude with other elites to roll back the democratic reforms of the late 1990s reformasi movement, like regional autonomy and potentially even the direct election of the president, restoring major elements of the ancien régime, Suharto’s New Order.

Indonesia and the Middle-Income Trap

On the economic front, Prabowo is likely to continue with Jokowi’s infrastructure-heavy developmentalist agenda and the policy of processing nickel domestically, known as downstreaming. Indonesia aspires to go beyond being a supplier of electric vehicle battery raw materials and instead emerge as a manufacturer of electric vehicles and EV batteries.

With a nickel boom and large-scale infrastructure spending — like the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, built and financed by China through its Belt and Road Initiative — Indonesia’s annual economic growth has hovered around 5 percent, save for the first years of the COVID pandemic.

But there is trouble beneath the surface. And this is a story that is playing out far beyond Indonesia, but the level of inequality in Indonesia is quite stark. Baker says, “Indonesia’s economic growth is very poorly distributed.” Indeed, the country’s one percent controls nearly half of the economy. And, Baker adds, “a very large group of Indonesians” — roughly 40 percent — “live[s] with a constant feeling of precarity.”

It’s not all doom and gloom in Indonesia. The country, Baker says, has been a “success story” in driving down poverty and nearly eradicating extreme poverty. But the country could face a middle-income trap as what Baker calls the “precarious middle class” struggles with job stability due to low-quality education and unmet aspirations.

Baker warns that “in politics, there’s nothing so dangerous as a dashed aspiration, as a promise of something better that never, never appears.” With the rise of disruptive forces like artificial intelligence, that is a danger that should occupy the minds of elites in Indonesia and across the developing world.

Episode Description

Jacqui Baker (@indobaker) of Murdoch University joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss Prabowo Subianto’s victory in Indonesia’s presidential elections, the legacy and political future of the popular outgoing president Joko Widodo, and the durability of the economic and political status quo in this rising Southeast Asian power.

Guest Bio

Jacqui Baker is a lecturer at Murdoch University’s Indo-Pacific Research Centre and the co-host of the Talking Indonesia podcast. She is also an editor at the Journal for Southeast Asian Studies.

Dr. Baker is a researcher, international development practitioner, and academic who has been studying Indonesia for over 20 years, focusing on issues of democratization, security and policing, human rights, corruption, and law reform.

She has also worked and consulted for numerous international, Australian, and Indonesian institutions including The Asia Foundation, Amnesty International, UNODC, Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Justice, and U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center.

Jacqui Baker’s Book Recommendations

1. Man Tiger: A Novel by Eka Kurniawan

“It’s an incredible read right up to the last line,” says Baker.

2. Birth Canal by Dias Novita Wuri

3. Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

4. The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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