In Indonesia elections, fears grow that democracy is sliding backwards


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What unfurls across Indonesia on election day is undeniably stunning. The spectacle spans three time zones and a length of territory wider than the continental United States. In more than 820,000 polling stations stretched over 17,000 islands, some 205 million people are eligible to vote Wednesday for the country’s next president, as well as for lawmakers in national and regional legislatures. In some instances, the ballots they cast will have taken extraordinary journeys — delivered on ox-drawn carts through muddy terrain, in kayaks gliding into remote lagoons, aboard helicopters to isolated mountain villages.

For 2½ decades, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation has consolidated its democracy after spending the bulk of the 20th century under colonial rule and later autocratic dictatorship. Elections have been mostly free and fair, and transitions of power peaceful and orderly. In a nation of astonishing scale and diversity, the success of Indonesian democracy has been an example for countries elsewhere in the developing world — not least myriad other Muslim-majority states where strongmen and generals have long quashed the democratic aspirations of their peoples.

Yet in an age of global democratic recession, there are growing fears of erosion and backsliding in Indonesia. Outgoing President Joko Widodo is completing his second term as one of the most popular elected leaders on the world stage, boosted by years of investment in major infrastructure, public services and an expanded social safety net on the back of a significant economic boom. Constitutional rules dictate that Widodo can’t seek a third term, but he is pushing for continuity in the conspicuous form of defense minister Prabowo Subianto, a former Widodo rival and longtime veteran of the Indonesian political scene.

“Widodo’s critics allege that he pressured the country’s Constitutional Court to change the eligibility requirements for political candidates so that his son, 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, could become Prabowo’s running mate,” my colleagues Rebecca Tan and Winda Charmila explained. “They also allege that Widodo has been using his personal political influence as well as the power of the executive office to hamper the campaign activities of other candidates. Widodo and Prabowo have dismissed these accusations.”

2024 brings wave of elections with global democracy on the ballot

Prabowo is the overwhelming front-runner — a state of affairs that would have seemed impossible not too long ago. He is a holdover from an earlier era of the country’s politics under the military dictatorship of Suharto, during which he ordered the kidnapping of democracy activists and directed the massacre of independence fighters in East Timor, among other brutish activities, as a military leader. Prabowo’s track record led to a dishonorable discharge from the military in 1998 and a visa ban on entering the United States, which was apparently dropped after he became defense minister.

Prabowo recast himself as a nationalist politician and competed against Widodo in previous elections, before joining the charismatic populist’s cabinet after failing to beat him in 2019. In this election campaign, he has played up the image of a soft, cuddly grandfather, performing cheeky dances for social media platforms like TikTok used by a wide segment of Indonesia’s large electorate. More than 50 percent of Indonesian voters are below the age of 40 and have limited memories of the country’s pre-democratic era.

Widodo came to power as a reforming outsider with a working-class background, shorn of the privileges and pedigree accorded to figures like Prabowo from the country’s dynastic political elites. But he presided over a scenario that saw his brother-in-law as a top judge push through the court ruling that enables his son to contest this election as Prabowo’s running mate. Prabowo, who is competing against former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, may not only be extending Widodo’s legacy, but also building his dynasty.

Analysts warn of deeper blows to Indonesia’s democracy under Widodo’s watch. “He weakened the country’s independent anti-corruption commission and signed an overhaul of the criminal code that curtailed freedom of expression, criminalized nonmarital sex and gave the government wide and ill-defined powers to prosecute critics and opponents,” noted Gordon LaForge of the New America think tank. “He has dispensed patronage, has been criticized for meddling in the internal affairs of rival political parties and allowed the military to play a greater role in civilian life.”

“What we’re seeing are pretty brazen attacks to democratic norms and institutions,” said Made Supriatma, a visiting fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told my colleagues.

Who is Prabowo, the former general who could win Indonesia’s election?

The stakes for any Indonesian election are big, given the country’s significance on the world stage. It’s a supplier of numerous resources critical to the digital age, including nickel. It’s also a rising Asian power that stands athwart the brewing 21st-century rivalry between the United States and China.

On that front, Widodo charted a complicated middle path. He “aggressively cultivated Chinese aid and investment, perhaps more so than any other leader of a large Southeast Asian economy,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But at the same time, he and his military advisors have become more concerned in recent years about China’s activities in Indonesian territorial waters, so he also has expanded defense cooperation with the United States.”

What comes next will have major implications no matter the election’s outcome. “A huge, multiethnic nation whose borders were arbitrarily set by Dutch colonialism, Indonesia presents a broad canvas onto which many different hopes and fears can be projected,” Ben Bland, an author of a book on the outgoing president, wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Its political developments are variously seen as a sign of democracy’s consolidation, as a harbinger of global democratic backsliding, as a beacon of tolerance or of economic development, or as an example of the dangers posed by rising Islamic extremism or protectionism.”

He concluded: “It might not resemble the Western vision of a liberal democracy, but the battles to shape the future of its political system will not end after the election.”


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