Prabowo Triumphant in Indonesia’s Presidential Election

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Indonesian voters headed to the polls on February 14 to cast their vote for president, members of the national legislature, and members of provincial and local legislatures. With more than 204 million registered voters, Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy—its elections are an important exercise amid signs of democratic regression in the country, and will shape the future course of Southeast Asia’s largest economy and foremost middle power.

Q1: Who were the candidates?

A1: With incumbent president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo term-limited after 10 years in office, Wednesday’s elections saw three candidates vie for the country’s top job. Prabowo Subianto, the controversial former lieutenant general who currently serves as Indonesia’s defense minister, largely dominated the field in his third attempt at the presidency. After vying for office against Jokowi twice, Prabowo has now positioned himself as the president’s natural successor, running alongside Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the president’s eldest child and the current mayor of Surakarta. Gibran joined Prabowo’s ticket following the Constitutional Court’s issuance of a highly controversial ruling loosening age requirements for presidential and vice presidential candidates.

This year’s election also saw former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan run for president, alongside deputy speaker of the House of Representatives Muhaimin Iskandar. After previously serving as Jokowi’s minister of education and culture from 2014 to 2016, Anies emerged as a strident critic of the government, eventually running for the Jakarta governorship in 2017 against Jokowi ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Anies’s 2017 campaign was contentious for riding on a wave of growing religious conservatism and its efforts to court Jakarta’s Islamic vote. In his presidential campaign, Anies attempted to present a more moderate image, but the former governor maintained his maverick streak by criticizing the current government’s flagship initiatives, including the new capital, Nusantara, being built in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

Former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo rounded out the presidential field, running alongside former coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs, Mahfud MD. Ganjar was widely seen as a shoo-in for office in early opinion polls thanks to backing from the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the party that propelled Jokowi to office. But Jokowi’s fractured relationship with PDI-P party chief and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri led many of the incumbent president’s supporters to cross party lines and support Prabowo and Gibran, deflating the momentum of Ganjar’s campaign.

Q2: What were the results, and what happens next?

A2: After months of leading opinion polls, Prabowo Subianto has seemingly secured a decisive win, leading with approximately 59 percent of the vote share based on initial quick count results. His nearest competitor, Anies, landed at an estimated 25 percent, with third-place candidate Ganjar trailing at 16 percent. By securing over 50 percent of the vote share, Prabowo surpassed the threshold for winning the election in a single round, foreclosing the need for a run-off vote in June. While both the Anies and Ganjar campaigns have yet to concede pending the formal tabulation of votes over the next month, unofficial quick count results have a proven track record of accuracy in Indonesian elections.

Prabowo’s apparent victory marks the culmination of a years-long political rehabilitation—from pariah in exile, to firebrand opposition leader, and now to affable elder statesman and torchbearer for the Jokowi legacy. Prabowo and Gibran’s success also marks the final act in Jokowi’s own political transformation: from humble political outsider and would-be reformist to a savvy political operator who presided over years of democratic backsliding and the founder of a new political dynasty accused of tipping the scales in Wednesday’s elections. While Jokowi will leave office in October, it is abundantly clear that he will remain a central figure in Indonesian politics for years to come.

With elections squared away, public attention will now turn to the formation of Prabowo’s cabinet. Prabowo’s government will likely see the return of many incumbent officials, including those affiliated with Golkar, the National Mandate Party, and other parties from the current ruling coalition that lent their support to the president-elect’s campaign. The political future of Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the influential coordinating minister of maritime affairs and investment and Jokowi’s right-hand man, is unclear. Luhut expressed his staunch support for Prabowo’s candidacy, but has also indicated that he will retire no matter who takes office in October. The returns of Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi—both politically independent technocrats—seem less likely given rumors of their unease with Jokowi’s perceived meddling in the election.

Prabowo’s party vehicle, Gerindra, may be the biggest winner, with longtime loyalists and party cadres likely to receive significant appointments. Prabowo’s victory may also see former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party return to the fold after 10 years in political wilderness. The next few months could even see Prabowo extend an olive branch to his opponents in the Anies and Ganjar campaigns in an echo of Jokowi’s victory in 2019, after which he brought Prabowo into government. But nothing is assured in Indonesian politics, and political parties will now undertake intense horse-trading and political jockeying as they vie for top positions before the presidential inauguration in October.

Q3: How will the election impact Indonesian foreign policy and the U.S.-Indonesia relationship?

A3: Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy will likely see more continuity than change under a new government, but a President Prabowo will likely change tack and focus on a broader set of priorities than President Jokowi, who has long been criticized for his general disinterest in foreign affairs. Prabowo has pledged to continue some of Jokowi’s flagship initiatives, including the downstreaming (hilirisasi) of the nickel industry and the development of the Nusantara capital city project. But the former general’s comparatively internationalist outlook may see him put more focus on foreign policy and defense than his predecessor, despite his sometimes idiosyncratic views and unpredictability.

Prabowo’s approach to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be one key area to watch. The organization has failed to make significant progress on key issues, including tensions in the South China Sea and the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. The fact that the Jokowi administration has largely shied away from Indonesia’s traditional role as a leader in ASEAN has exacerbated the organization’s strategic drift. Prabowo thus has the opportunity to steer Indonesia toward a more forward leaning and active role in ASEAN and restore the institution’s relevance and centrality. But all this depends on whether he has the patience to work through ASEAN’s admittedly languid decisionmaking and institutional processes. Prabowo may place a higher priority on maritime security and the assertion of Indonesia’s rights in the South China Sea, including by supporting some efforts at coordination among Southeast Asian claimants. 

Prabowo’s military record and allegations of human rights abuses will undoubtedly raise concern in some circles. In 2020, Amnesty International, alongside Indonesian human rights organizations, criticized the Trump administration’s decision to lift Prabowo’s visa ban in advance of the defense minister’s meeting with then defense secretary Mark Esper. Such outcry is likely to recur if and when Prabowo visits the United States as president. Prabowo’s win may also complicate Jakarta’s ties with its neighbors in Dili, given the president-elect’s history of alleged abuses in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation while serving in in Indonesia’s special forces. And Indonesia’s relations with the European Union may see frosty times ahead, given Prabowo’s long record of criticizing the body. How Prabowo navigates these relationships will be an early test for his administration.

However, as far as the U.S.-Indonesia relationship is concerned, Washington ultimately views Jakarta as an indispensable partner amid an increasingly fractious regional landscape and will pursue deeper cooperation regardless of who Indonesians elect as their president. Prabowo’s relatively successful record of engagement with the United States in his capacity as defense minister bodes well for the future of the relationship. But the president-elect’s unpredictability, his controversial past, and the prospect of further democratic erosion in the country may be cause for concern in the U.S. Congress and among civil society groups.

Andreyka Natalegawa is an associate fellow for the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.