Indonesia Elects Prabowo: What Happened and What’s Next?
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Indonesia Elects Prabowo
What Happened and What’s Next?

by Ann Marie Murphy
February 21, 2024

Ann Marie Murphy assesses the Indonesian election in which presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto is showing a commanding lead in early tallies and has claimed victory. She considers implications for domestic and foreign policy in the wake of incumbent president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s two five-year terms in office.

On February 14, 2024, over 200 million Indonesians went to the polls and elected Prabowo Subianto as the country’s next president with approximately 58% of the vote according to credible quick count results. This landslide victory over his two opponents, Anies Basweden and Ganjar Pranowo, who won approximately 25.5% and 16.5%, respectively, means that Prabowo has exceeded the 50% threshold to avoid a run-off election in June, an outcome that analysts had predicted until the last weeks of the campaign. Prabowo has declared victory, but his opponents have not conceded, and official results will not be released until March 20th. Although the losing candidates may challenge the results in the Constitutional Court, the outcome is unlikely to change given the magnitude of Prabowo’s win.

Prabowo’s victory is the culmination of a long quest for power and a dramatic political transformation. A high-ranking general once married to the daughter of longtime dictator Suharto, Prabowo was credibly accused of human rights abuses and forced out of the military following Indonesia’s democratic opening in 1998. He unsuccessfully sought to be nominated as a presidential candidate in 2004, campaigned as a vice presidential candidate in 2009, and ran for the presidency in 2014 and 2019, in which he was beaten by incumbent president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo both times. In those elections, Prabowo ran as a strongman, allied with extremist Islamic groups, and mobilized identity politics by calling Jokowi a Chinese Christian Communist. In a surprise move, Jokowi appointed Prabowo as defense minister in 2019, enabling Prabowo to develop a reputation as an elder statesman. In the 2024 election campaign, Prabowo downplayed his image as a strongman and instead promoted himself on social media as a cute grandpa to appeal to the majority of Indonesian voters who are under the age of 40.

Most importantly, Prabowo secured Jokowi’s backing and campaigned to continue his policies. Jokowi remains the most popular politician in Indonesia, with an approval rating over 70%. He had earlier floated the idea of revising the constitution to lift the restriction on presidents serving more than two terms but dropped the proposal in the face of political pushback. Instead, Jokowi threw his support behind his erstwhile rival as the best way to retain his political influence and propelled Prabowo to victory.

Jokowi broke the norm of presidential neutrality and used state power to influence the election. Most controversially, Jokowi engineered the appointment of his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka as Prabowo’s running mate. Under Indonesia’s constitution, the minimum age to run on a presidential ticket is 40, but the Constitutional Court issued an exception for people with experience in political office, thereby enabling 36-year-old Gibran to run. The ruling triggered an outcry, and the court’s chief justice, Jokowi’s brother-in-law Anwar Usman, was censured for ethics violations. Opposition candidates also complained of intimidation by the police and governmental officials.

Jokowi hopes to remain a political kingmaker, although it is unclear how much influence he will have once he loses the levers of government patronage in October when the new president takes office. With victory in hand, Prabowo will be less dependent on Jokowi. Yet, Prabowo’s Gerinda Party will not possess a legislative majority—it appears to have won about 14% of the vote, making it the third largest in parliament. As Prabowo begins the political horse-trading necessary to form a parliamentary coalition, he will be seeking support from Jokowi’s allies, creating potential conflicts between the two. Jokowi hopes to wield influence through his son but, like its U.S. counterpart, the Indonesian vice presidency lacks independent power, and how much political authority Prabowo will delegate to Gibran is uncertain. Prabowo, however, is 72 years old and in poor health, creating the prospect that Gibran could succeed him in the next five years and then run for two more presidential terms. This would potentially extend the Jokowi dynasty for another decade.

Democracy has experienced significant backsliding under Jokowi, and many Indonesians worry Prabowo could dismantle it entirely. Prabowo has long criticized “Western style” democracy and has made clear that he believes some reforms should be rolled back. His role in the kidnapping of democracy advocates in the waning days of the Suharto era also raises fear among political activists, who are bracing for a further erosion of democratic checks and balances and more restrictions on civil rights.

As a staunch nationalist, Prabowo has expressed his commitment to Indonesia’s long-standing nonaligned foreign policy doctrine and a desire to avoid becoming entangled in the Sino-U.S. rivalry. He has stated that Indonesia must pragmatically seek benefits from both the United States and China. In past campaigns, Prabowo claimed foreigners were exploiting Indonesia’s natural resources and criticized Jokowi’s economic ties with China, which is now Indonesia’s largest trading partner and investor. Although he has promised to continue Jokowi’s resource downstreaming policy, Prabowo is likely to seek enhanced economic ties with countries such as Japan to reduce Indonesia’s dependence on China.

Prabowo has been critical of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, particularly its claims to Indonesia’s Natuna Island exclusive economic zone. As defense minister, he strengthened security ties with the United States, Japan, and Australia, among others, and hosted the first multilateral naval exercise of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Traditionally, Indonesia and China have both sought to downplay their maritime disputes to foster better relations. However, if China blatantly challenged Indonesian naval vessels as it does Philippine ships, Prabowo is likely to respond strongly.

The United States is anticipated to cooperate closely with Prabowo, despite his controversial history, given Indonesia’s potentially pivotal role in U.S.-Chinese competition. In 2020, Washington lifted the ban on Prabowo entering the United States that had been imposed for his human rights abuses so he could visit as defense minister. U.S.-Indonesia defense ties have expanded in the past five years, and Prabowo is perceived by some Americans as a potential barrier to Chinese influence in Indonesia.

Prabowo is expected to seek to elevate Indonesia’s role on the international stage, where the country is often perceived as punching below its weight. He has an international background, an interest in strategic issues, and a desire for Indonesia to be recognized as a leading actor. Prabowo’s legendary temper, nationalistic streak, and disinclination to take advice from advisers, however, could inject uncertainty into Indonesian foreign policy. At the 2023 Shangri-la Dialogue, Prabowo discarded a speech cleared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and proposed a peace plan for Ukraine that sounded as if it had been drafted by Russia. Indonesia is normally known for its polite, lead-from-behind diplomatic style, but that is at odds with Prabowo’s traditional tough guy persona. Depending on whether Prabowo governs as a strongman or statesman, Indonesian foreign policy may become more unpredictable.

Ann Marie Murphy is Professor and Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. She is also an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University and a founding partner of the New York Southeast Asia Network.