On February 14, 2024, Indonesia will hold its general election after 25 years of Reformasi (Reform) from President Suharto’s dictatorship. On Valentine’s Day, the world’s fourth most populous country will elect its next president and vice president. Indonesia’s election process is now a one-day voting system which includes not only the presidential election but also a race for seats in the regional and national legislative bodies. This new voting process is an ambitious project; an election structured in this form has only been allowed since 2017 and was carried out successfully only once, five years ago. 

In 2019, the general election in Indonesia was the world’s largest executive and legislative election in the world with an estimate of more than 190 million voters coming to the polling stations. Indonesia currently has three presidential candidates contesting. As a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the winner’s subsequent five-year term will be determinative not only for the nascent democracy’s 275 million citizens, but also for the whole region’s future democratic trajectory.

A Three-Horse Race

Former Lieutenant General of the Army and current Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto is Indonesia’s first presidential candidate. The minister was once the son-in-law of the ousted dictator Suharto and is the current chairman of the third largest party in Indonesia. Despite his political achievements, the former general is suspected to have been involved in several human rights violations of the following character: kidnapping, torturing, and disappearance of pro-democracy activists, all such suspicions dating back to Suharto’s rule. Allegations against Mr. Prabowo’s role during the authoritarian regime have never been tried in court. Meanwhile, victims and their families continue to demand justice. 

The country’s second candidate is the former Governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, who is also not free from controversy. Following numerous protests against Israel’s participation in the U-20 World Cup 2023, FIFA announced the removal of Indonesia as host. Mr. Ganjar was among the few politicians who received much of the blame for this turn of events after expressing his opposition to the Israeli team’s participation in the competition. The former governor’s attitude was indeed in line with the Muslim-majority country‘s historical stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but at a cost of hosting a world-class sporting event for Indonesia’s significant soccer-crazed population.

The third candidate is Anies Baswedan. He was the rector of a prominent university in Indonesia until 2007 and founded a non profit focused on youth involvement in education. From his popularity in academia, the Fulbright graduate was handpicked as Minister of Education and Culture (2014-16) under the current President Joko Widodo (Jokowi). However, since the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial race, Mr. Anies’s name has been a divisive one, in part due to his campaign’s exploitation of a wave of discontent among Muslim conservatives against a Chinese Christian incumbent.

A Setback in Indonesian Democracy?

According to most polls, Mr. Prabowo is leading this three-way contest. The presidential race turning in his favor could result in a grave threat to Indonesia’s democracy as the former general announced President Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to be his running mate last October. Many observers and scholars have called this turn of events a democratic decline as the country’s highest court was able to be bypassed by a family of political elites.

Indeed, Mr. Gibran’s candidacy has gone through a controversial legal process in the Constitutional Court (MK) with regard to his age. While the  constitution requires presidential and vice-presidential candidates to be at least 40 years old, Mr. Gibran is still 36. However, the court decided that Mr. Gibran be given an exemption in a controversial ruling. As a result, the Honorary Council of the Constitutional Court (MKMK) announced that MK Chief Justice Anwar Usman, who also happens to be the president’s brother-in-law, be dismissed from office. 

Mr. Anwar was found guilty of a conflict of interest regarding his nephew’s candidacy and had committed serious violations in the judges’ code of ethics. This seems to underline important patterns of nepotism and a closed elite which could endanger the country’s already vulnerable democratic institutions. 

Another case of a political dynasty in motion? 

Professor Simon Butt of the University of Sydney and Professor Tim Lindsey of the University of Melbourne have stated that President Widodo “appears to have decided that Prabowo, of all people, offers the best chance to build a dynasty to keep some sort of hold on power” in the Indonesian political landscape. A number of Jokowi supporters have expressed disappointment and outrage about the president’s recent attitude and closeness to figures with links to the former authoritarian regime. The president’s change of demeanor does not seem to reflect his past symbol as “a new generation of leadership” both domestically and abroad. 

This issue of political dynasties is indeed not new nor unusual in Southeast Asia where developing democracies become a fertile ground for such families to thrive in politics. In the Philippines, the coalition between President Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., son of the country’s late dictator, and former President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter won the election last October. Such a dynamic in domestic politics in the region has also been examined in Thailand with the rise of Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of the corrupt former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The former managed to arrange a coalition with past military rivals to form a new government and ended up placing second in the 2023 election. 

Minister Prabowo and President Jokowi’s electoral approach seems to show significant parallels with that of the political elites in the Philippines and Thailand. Their political strategies appear to display key elements of right-wing populist leaders which have the tendency to weaken democracy. In an already tense regional context, Indonesia’s general election could determine whether the leadership in ASEAN would succumb to yet another political dynasty like its neighbors recently have, or if it would successfully embrace what might be a fruitful democratic reform.

Edited by Margaux Zani

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Isabel Esterman.