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Indonesia may have just elected a strongman

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Indonesia may have just elected a strongman

Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka celebrate with their supporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, on February 14, 2024, after the polls closed in the Indonesian presidential and legislative general election. Subianto is claiming victory in the first round of the presidential election. | Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A relic from Indonesia’s dictatorship is the new president.

Indonesians have chosen Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo as their next president, despite his history as a general credibly accused of human rights abuses and war crimes and concerns he could hasten democratic erosion during his tenure.

Prabowo, who uses his first name, is closely aligned with outgoing President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, and currently serves as Indonesia’s defense minister. Preliminary results from Wednesday’s polls have Prabowo leading over the other two candidates, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan, the former governors of Central Java and Jakarta respectively.

Though Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, generally has strong voter mobilization, the country’s democratic institutions aren’t exactly robust. There has been democratic backsliding over the past decade under Jokowi, although he has been an extremely popular president. Jokowi essentially anointed Prabowo as his successor, and given Prabowo’s violent history, there are concerns that backsliding will only grow worse under the new administration.

“Indonesians are generally proud of their democratic politics and enjoy their elections, but the country has seen a sustained backsliding of its democratic character with the rising intolerance against the minorities, increasing Shariatization,” or the promotion of Sharia law, “in the provinces, political favoritism, and growing influence of the military in the national politics,” Vibhanshu Shekhar, adjunct professorial lecturer in political science at American University, told Vox via email.

Indonesia is a young democracy; it has been only 25 years since former dictator Suharto was overthrown. It’s often seen, at least from a Western perspective, as an encouraging example of democratic transition and growth in a region where democracy has sometimes struggled to take hold. But Indonesia’s 2024 elections merit a closer look — and a close eye on Prabowo’s policies as he takes office.

Who is Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s president-elect?

Jokowi is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term, but Prabowo has promised to continue his policies, including continued nonalignment in the great power showdown between the US and China and building a new capital city, Nusantara.

That Jokowi, an essentially progressive leader who ran against Prabowo in two previous elections, tacitly endorsed Prabowo as his successor is surprising given that they don’t belong to the same political party. Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) put forward Ganjar Pranowo as its candidate, who hoped to further Jokowi’s “progressive, pluralist, developmentalist vision for Indonesian democracy,” as Thomas Pepinsky wrote for Brookings in January.

Jokowi and Prabowo were once bitter rivals. The former general lost the presidency to Jokowi twice, in 2014 and 2019, and leveled venomous attacks against the popular president. After Prabowo refused to concede the 2019 election, Jokowi brought Prabowo into his government as the defense minister. Incorporating political rivals into one’s government is not an uncommon practice in Indonesian politics. It’s partly a function of the importance of social cohesion in the country, according to Parker Novak, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, but it also helps leaders “neutralize political opponents and progressively build a power base,” he told Vox.

Prabowo has a reputation for advancing populist ideologies — including supporting extremist Islamist elements and disparaging minorities like ethnic Chinese and Christians. He also repeatedly suggested that Indonesia should have a strongman ruler; that is, himself.

However, he has become a key Jokowi ally who brought the president’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to be his running mate despite Gibran being too young to run. In an incident that raised concerns among pro-democracy activists, Jokowi faced allegations that he pressured the Constitutional Court to make an exception to the age requirement for his son.

In his past campaigns, Prabowo has asserted his military bona fides; a former special forces soldier, he rose through the ranks after marrying former dictator Suharto’s daughter. As a general, he allegedly participated in massacres in East Timor; the kidnapping and “disappearing” of democracy activists; the targeting of ethnic Chinese Indonesians in campaigns of murder, arson, and rape; and the killings of civilians in the provinces of Aceh and West Papua.

This time, however, Prabowo has embraced the image of a jocular, grandfatherly figure during the present campaign — dancing awkwardly in TikTok videos and paying diplomatic visits to and complimenting his political rivals. That resonated with voters, and perhaps especially young voters for whom TikTok is an important news source and who don’t remember a very different Prabowo. That strategy, coupled with his ties to the popular Jokowi, proved effective — particularly due to the rise of a new, younger voting bloc this cycle.

“You have tens of millions of young voters who are newly eligible to vote, casting a ballot for the first time,” Novak said. “And a lot of these young people didn’t live through the Suharto era; they hear stories from their parents, they obviously see things in the media, they talk to their friends about it, but they didn’t live through it.” Now, Novak said, “there’s a very different perception of Prabowo.”

What can we make of Indonesia’s backsliding?

Prabowo won a clear majority, so there will be no runoff in June. And there’s no reason to believe that the vote was rigged. But there is a clear argument to be made that Jokowi, beloved though he is, has helped undo Indonesia’s democratic norms and has helped catapult his former rival into power.

Jokowi has overseen several challenges to civil liberties and democratic norms, including his son’s vice presidential run. Jokowi also oversaw a 2022 legislative ban on sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, as well as legislation punishing insults to the president or viewpoints contrary to Indonesian national ideology, CNN reported at the time.

“It is clearer that Jokowi is not ideologically wedded to democracy and is willing to circumvent certain freedoms in order to pursue his developmentalist [focused on deregulation and infrastructure] agenda,” Natalie Sambhi, nonresident fellow for foreign policy at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, wrote for Brookings in 2021.

Jokowi is not the only person at fault here; there’s an entire system that contributes to Indonesia’s democratic troubles, Shekhar told Vox. “The principal factor leading to democratic backsliding in Indonesia is its political culture where [the] political elite has often chosen to ignore, bend, and break rules for short-term gains. Corruption, nepotism, patronage networks, and money politics [including vote-buying and little campaign finance accountability] are some of the expressions of the existing political culture,” which, Shekhar said, infuses the politics of all parties.

Another significant factor in the erosion of democratic norms, Novak said, was the lack of accountability for crimes committed during the Suharto era. “So many Suharto-era elites fade into the background versus going away” following the transition to democracy in 1998, Novak told Vox. And while there have been some efforts at transitional justice, none of the major players credibly accused of serious crimes during the Suharto era have been put on trial, let alone punished for their actions.

”They never really left the political scene,” Novak said. “So I think part of why you’ve seen this backsliding is because you’ve seen a resurgence of Suharto-era elites, particularly over the last decade.”

Without that accountability, someone like Prabowo can come into power via democratic processes despite past allegations of serious human rights abuses and despite alarming threats of strongman tendencies.

“One’s record speaks volumes, and I’m skeptical that Prabowo has fundamentally changed — he’s in his early 70s, and one’s habits and views are pretty ingrained by that age,” Novak said. “If he has in fact changed, though, he should be given allowance to prove that.”

Prabowo may prove to be a changed person, one who saw the benefits of Jokowi’s governing style and may truly want to govern with the country’s best interests in mind. But if that turns out not to be the case, the opposition will have a difficult time pushing back against further democratic erosion or unfavorable policies.

That’s because the government also tends to wield power in parliamentary coalitions made up of lawmakers from a large number of parties. Because parliamentary coalitions are so big and broad, they tend to represent little ideologically, making organizing opposition difficult. That, as Pepinsky wrote, essentially means adding “as many parties to the governing coalition as possible to eliminate as much legislative opposition as possible.”

But even if Prabowo ends up hastening Indonesia’s democratic backsliding, that does not mean Indonesian society will put up with it; popular protests are part of what eventually brought down Suharto. And a vibrant, vocal, and durable civil society has been protesting and pushing back against undemocratic legislation in recent years, such as the proposed law prohibiting premarital sex. Still, that doesn’t mean a democratic future is guaranteed.

Indonesia may have just elected a strongman Rating: 4.5 Diposkan Oleh: Dr-tech

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