While the elections in India and Israel have grabbed recent headlines in the West, the upcoming vote in Indonesia—a country with vast natural resources, critical geo-political importance, and the fourth largest population in the world (including the largest number of Muslims)—has gone almost unnoticed. This is less a snub, perhaps, than an indication of how far Indonesia’s democracy has come. For its first half century after declaring independence from the Dutch, two decidedly undemocratic strongmen, Presidents Sukarno and Suharto, dominated the country and its politics. With the fall of Suharto’s “New Order” government in 1998, however, Indonesia held its first democratic election in 1999 and, while not without internal challenges, the country remains one of the most democratic in Southeast Asia. The upcoming election might thus be seen as not particularly newsworthy. But given the challenges posed by the election, the distinct differences between the two main candidates for president, and its importance to U.S. interests in Southeast Asia and its neighbors, this political event merits more attention
Described as the most complex single-day election in history, on April 17, Indonesia’s 190 million eligible voters will cast ballots in an election with more than 240,000 candidates, representing 16 political parties, competing for seats in both national and local legislative bodies. The government has hired some six million temporary election workers who will staff over 800,000 polling stations scattered across Indonesia’s 17,000+ islands. Moreover, unlike the upcoming Indian elections which will be spread over five weeks, Indonesia will have just one day of balloting.
A Presidential Rematch
The election features a rematch of the 2014 contest between current President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and former Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto, a charismatic businessman with authoritarian tendencies. Widodo ran on a reformist platform in 2014 and promised seven percent economic growth by the end of his first term, but his actual record has not matched his 2014 campaign rhetoric. Recent extrajudicial violence associated with his government’s anti-narcotics campaign has also tarnished the president’s image.
The latest polls nonetheless show Widodo running well ahead of his opponent, despite the lackluster performance of the Indonesian economy, the growth rate of which is holding steady at around five percent. Some of this shortfall is due to Widodo’s political calculations, opting for short-term popularity rather than long-term growth. For example, in 2014, Widodo campaigned on attracting more foreign investment. While he nominally relaxed some of Indonesia’s onerous limitations on foreign ownership, he has not gone very far (Indonesia still has the third most restrictive foreign investment regime in the world), preferring instead to tout economic nationalism that plays well among voters but continues to alienate potential international investors. Similarly, Widodo had promised a $323 billion overhaul of Indonesia’s transportation and energy infrastructure to be financed by reducing energy subsidies; instead, he opted for the popular move of increasing energy subsidies by 69% and the infrastructure overhaul has slowed. The economy has been hurt by falling commodity prices and increasing competition from China and elsewhere in the manufacturing sector. On a more positive note, Indonesia has a national savings rate above 30 percent, a stark contrast with its debt-to-GDP ratio of 100 percent in the wake of the 1999 Asian financial crisis.
Despite the polls, it is still possible that General Prabowo could come out on top. The swashbuckling former general—who often dons a khaki shirt and cowboy hat for his campaign rallies—can rev up a crowd with fiery nationalist rhetoric and impersonations of political rivals. As a young man, the charismatic Prabowo rose quickly within the Indonesian Army, in part, his detractors would say, because of easy access to his former father-in-law, President Suharto. (Prabowo and Suharto’s daughter divorced in 1998, the same year Suharto fell from power). Prabowo’s nationalist instincts, including calls for increased defense spending and a hardline on China, could resonate well with the Trump administration. As a graduate of elite U.S. army training programs at Fort Benning, GA and Fort Bragg, NC, the retired general knows the value of a close military-to-military relationship with the U.S., especially if he intends to boost defense spending and overhaul Indonesia’s military.
But rumors of human rights abuses have dogged Prabowo since his time as the Commander of Indonesia’s elite Special Forces Group (Kopassus) and later the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) in the late 1990s. While Prabowo has never been prosecuted for any crimes, he was dismissed by his military superiors in August 1998 for “exceeding orders” in connection with the arrest and torture of pro-democracy activists. Prabowo has long been rumored to have had a hand in fomenting the widespread riots that contributed to President Suharto’s downfall, but a post-Suharto government investigation found only circumstantial evidence of Prabowo’s involvement. Prabowo’s reputation has also caused problems for him in the past with the international community. For instance, the U.S. State Department turned down, without public explanation, Prabowo’s 2000 request for a visa to attend his son’s graduation in Boston. However, this might be less of a problem than in the past with the current U.S. administration, which recently finessed a visa issue for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The U.S.-Indonesia Security Relationship
Since independence, the U.S.-Indonesia relationship has been cordial, but not particularly robust, especially when compared to U.S. cooperation with Singapore, the Philippines, and other U.S. allies in the region. The U.S. has deliberately distanced itself at various points from Indonesia, including restricting military cooperation and training in the 1990s due to Indonesia’s human rights record. Military-to-military cooperation was resumed in 2005, but has not yet achieved the levels of the Suharto era. Public statements to the contrary, many Indonesians privately express concerns about U.S. intentions, and they also have a surprising willingness to believe conspiracy theories about America’s ulterior motives. Indonesia has historically favored dealing with transnational security matters in the context of ASEAN, or unilaterally.
Both countries share important mutual security interests, however, including a shared desire to curb China’s increasing regional influence and bellicosity. During Widodo’s tenure, Indonesia has been one of the few Asian countries to stand up to China’s expanding circle of influence, holding military exercises in the vicinity of the contested Natuna Islands, and the U.S. and Indonesia would both benefit from closer cooperation vis-à-vis China going forward. Moreover, the two countries have mutual interests in counteracting the influence of ISIS-inspired groups in the region, combatting transnational crime and piracy, and increasing bilateral trade.
In the final days of the campaign, Widodo appears headed toward victory with a commanding double-digit lead, despite a narrowing gap between the two candidates. Whichever candidate wins, the next president will need a strong majority to follow through on campaign promises and take the necessary, but potentially unpopular, steps for Indonesia to become a more prosperous and democratic nation. As a second—and final—term president, Widodo will be best positioned to do that as he won’t be facing another bruising campaign in 2024. A stronger bilateral partnership between the United States and Indonesia would advance both nations’ security and economic goals, yet relations have failed to reach their potential in the post-Suharto years. Regardless of the outcome, the upcoming Indonesia election provides the opportunity for both sides to refocus and strengthen this vital partnership that has failed to reach its potential for far too long.