Explainer

What’s at Stake in Indonesia’s Elections?

The world’s third-largest democracy goes to the polls.

An Indonesian election commission worker arranges ballot boxes in preparation for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Surabaya on March 18. (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indonesian election commission worker arranges ballot boxes in preparation for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Surabaya on March 18. (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, some 193 million Indonesian voters are set to pick their next president in a general election that will also decide the fate of thousands of seats in local, regional, and national government. More than 245,000 candidates are competing for votes across the archipelago.


Incumbent Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks to his supporters during a campaign rally in Jakarta on April 13. (Jefri Tarigan/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The presidential race

Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, is the first president to hail from outside the military and political elite since the country’s transition to democracy in 1998.

A successful furniture salesman from a modest background, Jokowi rose to prominence as the mayor of Solo, a midsize city in Central Java, and in 2012 he went on to become the governor of Jakarta, the nation’s capital—a city so large it is run by a governor and regional legislature rather than a mayor and city council. He used the role as a springboard to run for president in 2014, winning a closely contested race.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto meets volunteers after registering for the 2019 presidential election in Jakarta on Aug. 10, 2018. (Dasril Roszandi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jokowi’s main opponent in that race represented a very different political lineage: Prabowo Subianto was a wealthy magnate, a former special forces general, and the former son-in-law of Suharto, the military strongman who ruled Indonesia for more than 30 years.

The 2019 election is, on face value, a 2014 repeat: Jokowi, now the establishment pragmatist rather than the hope-and-change upstart, is once again vying with Prabowo for the nation’s highest office.

Indonesian presidential politics is not arrayed along a stark left-right spectrum but is instead focused on candidates’ personalities and proposals. This arena of attitudes and affects is where Jokowi and Prabowo diverge most substantially.

Jokowi, a technocratic-minded moderate, is running on a platform centered around economic development, infrastructure investment, and job creation. Prabowo is also focused on the economy but has put forward a more militarist, stoutly nationalist, and at times xenophobic vision, and he has forged closer ties with popular Islamist movements.

A second term for Jokowi would mean five more years of his struggle to implement growth-oriented economic reforms while navigating complex identitarian issues and threats to pluralism. A Prabowo victory would point the country in a new, more nationalist, potentially more autocratic direction. Conservatives, Islamist radicals, and the military would likely have more purchase in the halls of power.

Jokowi has not delivered the full range of economic improvements he promised five years ago but has nonetheless pursued them aggressively, sometimes at the expense of human rights protections. Voters will have to measure his track record against that of Prabowo, who stands accused of a litany of human rights violations committed under Suharto, was banned for years from entering the United States due to his rights record, and was accused by former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie of attempting a coup.


People gather to sing and call for the release of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, after his arrest for blasphemy, at Proclamation Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 10, 2017. (Dasril Roszandi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Five years of change

Since Jokowi took office in 2014, Indonesia’s political landscape has shifted.

The recent fate of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok—Jokowi’s former deputy, who became governor of Jakarta when Jokowi stepped aside to pursue the presidency—offers the best way to understand what’s changed.

Ahok was Jokowi’s closest political ally. If Jokowi is a somewhat unusual Indonesian politician, Ahok surpasses him in that respect many times over: He is markedly irreverent, of Chinese descent, and a practicing Protestant in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Everything from Ahok’s sharp-tongued manner of speech to his double minority status—Chinese Indonesians face a long history of persecution—put him on a collision course with the country’s creeping hard-line Islamist movement, for whom he was an obvious political target.

Ahok’s governorship was short-lived. In quick succession, he made an ill-advised joke about a Quran verse during a stump speech that touched off massive protests organized by Islamist hard-liners, lost his re-election campaign, and was jailed for blasphemy under an infrequently enforced law.

“His imprisonment was a loud wake-up call for many Indonesians,” Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch who visited Ahok in jail, told Foreign Policy. “There is a serious problem of religious freedom and discrimination against minorities in Indonesia.”

Whether Ahok’s incarceration represented an irrevocable turning point in the trajectory of Indonesian political Islam or more of “an imperfect case of the country’s endemic electoral fight between pluralistic democracy and political Islam,” as Krithika Varagur wrote in an essay for FP, remains the subject of debate. But the influence of Islamist hard-liners has certainly increased: Despite his generally secular disposition, Prabowo aligned himself with the Islamist political currents that pushed for Ahok’s ouster, and in an apparent attempt to outflank him, Jokowi named Maruf Amin, the head of Indonesia’s clerics’ council, as his running mate.

The presidential contenders may be the same as five years ago, but the identity politics in play have changed.


Indonesian workers transport ballot boxes for the upcoming general elections at the Bonto Matinggi village in Maros, South Sulawesi, on April 16. (Daeng Mansur/AFP/Getty Images)

The machinery of democracy

Jokowi showed a strong early lead in the polls, although Prabowo has been closing the gap.

Regardless of the outcome, the sheer scale of the election marks what Ben Bland, the director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, called a feat of democracy, which “illustrates many of the oft-hidden processes that, beyond the simple act of casting ballots, underpin democratic societies.”

In a nation of more than 17,000 islands, some 8,000 of which are inhabited, organizing a one-day vote across more than 800,000 polling places is itself a mammoth endeavor. Election workers, some paddling canoes or hiking jungle tracks on foot, carry ballots to the country’s remote and rugged margins.

Other large democracies hold monumental elections. But in India, the world’s largest democracy, elections plod along for six weeks, which gives officials a bit more time to figure things out. The United States doesn’t hold direct elections for its highest office, instead filtering the vote through a centuries-old Electoral College, which is how both Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump became president despite losing the popular vote. That makes Indonesia’s the largest same-day direct presidential election in the world.

The Indonesian election does face substantial problems: Misinformation has rapidly proliferated on social media in the run-up to the vote, and more than a million indigenous people who do not have the right identification cards may not get to cast their ballots. Regardless, the process is proceeding apace—and its outcome will determine Indonesia’s future.

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway