Indonesia’s upcoming presidential elections will be boring, despite plenty of drama on the surface. In October 2023, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, headed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s brother-in-law, ruled that Jokowi’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka could run for the vice-presidency.
This twist not only undermined trust in the independence of the Court, it also upset the presidential race. Frontrunning candidate Prabowo Subianto was quick to enlist Gibran as his vice presidential candidate, a savvy move that seems to have succeeded in increasing his lead in the polls over his two rival candidates Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan. This decision also signaled that Jokowi no longer supports Ganjar, a candidate from his own party. Jokowi has chosen dynasty over party loyalty.
Yet this apparent coalition between Jokowi and Prabowo — his rival in the previous two presidential elections — suggests a worrisome trend that is making Indonesian politics predictable. Indonesia’s elections are turning into contests between interconnected elites who have similar visions for the country’s future.
When Jokowi first competed for the presidency against Prabowo in 2014, the elections really seemed to matter. As Indonesians faced a choice between a reformist former furniture salesman and a former military commander-cum-oligarch with a history of human rights offenses, the fate of Indonesia’s democracy hung in the balance. Yet after another polarising election in 2019, Jokowi appointed Prabowo as his minister of defense. This not only boosted Prabowo’s electoral changes, but also ensured that Jokowi would not face any real opposition during his second term in office.
During his second term, Jokowi’s dominance deepened the long-standing tendency of Indonesia’s political parties to avoid oppositional roles. Indonesia’s political parties prefer the perks and patronage associated with being in power. In 2021, Jokowi had the support of seven out of nine parties represented in parliament, jointly holding 81 percent of the seats. Jokowi also consolidated the support of Indonesia’s economic elites by making them ministers in his cabinet. As Indonesia’s political and economic elites fell in line behind Jokowi, the newspapers and television channels they owned followed suit and adopted a remarkably uncritical stance towards the president.
The consolidation of power by a relatively small and interconnected clique of political and business elites facilitated a gradual yet sustained crackdown on critical civil society voices. This process involved legislative efforts to regulate civil society and disband organizations deemed in opposition with Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila, which sees its citizens as equal in rights and duties regardless of ethnicity or religion. These efforts extended to undermining independent checks and balances. In 2019, a law was adopted that placed the corruption eradication commission, the Corruption Eradication Commission, under political tutelage.
This move sparked student protests across the country, leading Jokowi’s government to extend its use of repressive techniques — making arbitrary arrests, intimidating dissidents, and threatening university student expulsions. There are also indications that ruling politicians have hired anonymous cyber troops to promote government policies and harass online critics. The suppression of civil society voices has been felt across the country. Police violence and arrests of community leaders are regularly used to suppress protests of rural communities against companies taking their land. According to a recent poll, upwards of 62 percent of Indonesians say that they are afraid to express their political opinions. As such, observers commonly view Indonesia’s democracy as regressing.
This consolidation of power is shaping the character of the upcoming presidential elections. Anies Baswedan, who is running an opposition campaign, has regularly called for change. His campaign has been targeted in various ways. Entrepreneurs who donated money to Anies’ campaign, have had their tax returns especially scrutinized. Politicians associated with Nasdem, a political party supporting Anies, were suspected of corruption.
The main contest in the upcoming elections, then, involves two candidates closely tied to the current government. Ganjar Pranowo is the governor of Central Java and a staunch supporter of Jokowi’s presidency. His running mate, Mahfud MD, is a minister in Jokowi’s cabinet. Their opponent, Prabowo, is the Minister of Defence in Jokowi’s cabinet. His running mate, Gibran Rakabuming, is relatively inexperienced but seems to have been chosen primarily to signal to voters that Prabowo has the support of the current president and Gibran’s father.
Both Ganjar and Prabowo have made active efforts to present themselves as Jokowi’s heir. Prabowo is winning this contest after having made Gibran his vice-presidential candidate. Unsurprisingly, Jokowi tried to broker a coalition between Prabowo and Ganjar. Both candidates originate from the same ruling elite, they offer similar pro-business electoral programs and they both seek to uphold Jokowi’s policies.
Owing to the dominance of candidates associated with Jokowi’s government, there has been little critical debate about Jokowi’s policies. Election campaigns are important occasions to discuss such dilemmas, yet there has been very little debate about whether Indonesia’s current government has benefited Indonesians. Instead, most reporting on the elections has focused very narrowly on the personal dramas of who gets selected for the vice presidency and how that affects opinion polls.
The more interesting story is what the presidential race tells us about the evolution of Indonesia’s democracy. Comparable candidates promising continuity, a weakened civil society, and the relative absence of public debate about important dilemmas benefit the political and business elites currently in power. But such elections are unlikely to benefit Indonesian citizens. Without a meaningful choice and a strong opposition, the upcoming elections are unlikely to discipline the elites currently in power.
This article was originally published on the East Asia Forum.
Ward Berenschot is a professor in comparative political anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.