The Implications for Indonesian Democracy after Prabowo’s 2024 Win
Hurriyah 30 April 2024

After losing four elections, former general and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto won 58 percent of the vote on February 14, 2024. He and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, President Jokowi’s eldest son, are expected to be inaugurated as president and vice president in the coming months after the Constitutional Court rejected appeals by two losing candidates for a re-run of the presidential election and the disqualification of Prabowo’s running mate for ethical violations and “structural, systematic, and massive” electoral fraud.

In what may have been the worst elections since Indonesia’s post-1998 democratization, Prabowo’s current victory is the result of Machiavellian tactics – unethical cunning to attain personal ambitions – and reflects the fundamental threat to Indonesia’s nascent democracy.


What went wrong?

From the beginning, Prabowo and Gibran’s candidacy and campaign have been criticized for promoting a political dynasty and manipulating voters. Their candidacy was secured after the Constitutional Court granted an appeal to lower the minimum age for presidential and vice presidential candidates from the current 40 years to 35, allowing 36-year-old Gibran to run as Prabowo’s running mate. The ruling was issued by Chief Justice Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law, and sparked popular uproar over perceived nepotism and abuse of law and ethics. Previously, the Court had rejected similar requests, citing an open legal policy and the jurisdiction of Indonesia’s parliament. The decision has contributed to a decline in public trust in the Constitutional Court, amid concerns that Jokowi may influence the judiciary.

Meanwhile, despite his popularity, Prabowo is often seen as a populist politician with a poor human rights record. For the 2024 elections, he rebranded himself from a classic strongman and ultra-nationalist politician into an endearing and affable uncle. However, evidence shows that, while Prabowo’s campaign was framed by fun politics, he was repeatedly caught on camera making harsh remarks about his rivals during rallies. This adjustment simply demonstrated political flexibility, adaptation, and strategic considerations in gaining power. Therefore, it is not surprising that Prabowo, who was previously known as Jokowi’s main opponent, quickly switched sides, became Jokowi’s man, and declared himself as Jokowi’s successor.

Populist leaders like Jokowi and Prabowo have marred the 2024 election by using the democratic process to seize power. It is relevant to note Jokowi’s political maneuvres and interventions to back Prabowo-Gibran’s candidacy and campaign. A year ago, Jokowi openly stated that he would intervene in the election, citing his moral obligation as president. He went on a “political safari” and held meetings with volunteer and support groups, village head associations and apparatuses, as well as religious mass organizations. He also accompanied Prabowo on various visits throughout Indonesia. Many people believed that Jokowi was also the key factor behind the party leaders’ decision to nominate Gibran as Prabowo’s running mate, after he declared that he had all the intelligence data on political parties, including their direction support for the 2024 election.

Jokowi has been accused of running a populist campaign, from distributing early social aid to raising the salaries of civil servants, police, and the military. He was also accused of exploiting state resources and infrastructure to mobilize voters through incentives or threats. Jokowi’s intervention also involved other ethical and legal violations by government officials: some of his ministers campaigned without leave permission, while the governor of Jakarta distributed food bags in a light blue color that is identical to Prabowo’s campaign colour icon. Even though Jokowi never openly supports Prabowo and Gibran, his subtle language and gestures consistently suggest the opposite. Jokowi, an incumbent president with record-high approval ratings, knows that people understand where his support goes. Moreover, Prabowo’s campaign consistently highlights the jargon of continuing Jokowi’s policies.


Implications for democracy?

While the 2024 election results reflect the use of Machiavellian tactics, Indonesian politics has shown how elected leaders have used their popularity to push through laws and policies that destroy systems of checks and balances, prevent free and fair elections, and weaken political rights and civil liberties, resulting in the deterioration of democracy. This has been evident since the paralysis of democratic reforms during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono‘s term, and it is becoming more apparent under Joko Widodo.

Unlike Yudhoyono, Jokowi has often made surprising moves to stay in power. Once a beacon of hope, his administration has quickly regressed to illiberalism. Contrary to the popular belief that democratic consolidation is imminent, his tenure has seen a significant decline in the democratic integrity of political institution through “insidious” authoritarian innovation methods that weaken democratic rights. These authoritarian innovations have damaged democracy in three ways: first, stricter candidacy restrictions have reduced electoral competitiveness and increased political spending. Second, it affected civil rights protection, as certain political elites exploited identity politics to oppress minorities. Third, it has affected the way the government uses highly illiberal measures to defend its position.

Jokowi has also used innovative authoritarian methods to delegitimize protests, challenge political opposition, and instill fear among online and civic activists. Jokowi’s government has also been associated with the mainstreaming and legitimization of conservative and anti-pluralistic political Islam, contrary to the perceived beliefs of strong support for human rights and religious freedom. Jokowi’s use of Machiavellian tactics in the 2024 elections shows how innovative authoritarian methods have influenced the electoral process and undermined political parties, election management bodies, and the Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, Prabowo’s poor commitment to democracy has long been recognized, despite his pledge during the presidential debate to preserve the country’s democracy. In his victory speech after the quick count, he openly expressed his displeasure with Indonesia’s democracy, calling it “tiring, very costly, and very messy.” His calls to return Indonesia to its 1945 Constitution, which has served as the legal basis for centralized governance and unlimited executive power while failing to defend human rights, are seen as a clear path to authoritarianism. With his recent maneuvers to call for elite union and all political party backing for his administration, Prabowo intends to have full control of parliament and dismantle democratic checks and balances once in power.



Cover photo: Indonesia’s President-elect Prabowo Subianto waves to the media after the plenary meeting of the General Elections Commission (KPU) announcing the 2024 presidential election at the KPU office in Jakarta on April 24, 2024. Close to him, on the right, his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka (Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP.)

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