Bigger Challenges Awaiting New Indonesia Leader

Indonesia’s Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has coasted to an overwhelming victory in his country’s latest presidential election, garnering nearly 59% of the vote. His vice presidential running mate was incumbent President Joko Widodo’s oldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka.

Indonesia has a population of 278.7 million people, of whom 204.8 million were eligible to vote in the latest election. As a result, it was the world’s largest direct presidential election.

Its huge scale as a country is not limited to the population. Indonesia’s nominal gross domestic product accounts for 36% of that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Indonesia is one of its founding members — and its economy is the 16th largest in the world. Should it manage to sustain annual economic growth of 6% to 7%, it is projected to become the world’s fifth largest economy in 2045, the 100th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence.

In geopolitical terms, Indonesia is situated at an important location, exactly in the middle of the Indo-Pacific region. Maritime transportation from Japan to India and the Middle East must go through Indonesian waters. Indonesia’s political and economic developments therefore are crucial for the security and prosperity of Asia and Japan.

Prabowo owes a lot of his election victory to President Joko. When Prabowo ran for the presidency in 2014 and 2019 unsuccessfully, he touted himself as a “strongman” to appeal to Islamic conservatives and castigated Joko.

In stark contrast, Prabowo pledged during the latest election campaign to carry on and further develop the current administration’s policies, such as infrastructure and industrial development and the ongoing plan to relocate the capital. By choosing Joko’s eldest son as his running mate, Prabowo won the full support of the incumbent president, a development that helped him secure many ballots in Joko’s populous electoral strongholds of Central and East Java.

Prabowo also gained support among Gen Z and millennial voters younger than 43, who accounted for more than half of Indonesia’s eligible voting population.

The president-in-waiting is known for his role as an Indonesian special forces officer in military crackdowns on “rebellions” in East Timor and Papua in the 1970s through the 1990s, at which time President Suharto ruled Indonesia. When Indonesia was thrown into turmoil by the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, which eventually led to the fall of the Suharto regime, Prabowo was in charge of secret security operations that carried out the kidnapping of anti-government activists.

The latest election results indicate that he won votes from the generations who have no memory of the Suharto era and are now deciding Indonesia’s future.

Concerns about future of democracy

At the same time, the election’s outcome causes concerns about the future of Indonesian democracy.

The requirements to run for president of Indonesia set the minimum age for presidential and vice presidential candidates at 40, which would disqualify Gibran, 36, as Prabowo’s running mate from the start. However, the Constitutional Court, then headed by the incumbent president’s brother-in-law, exempted Gibran from the age requirement. In addition, there were more than a few cases of election interference by local governments and police.

Indonesia’s current Constitution has incorporated amendments that are aimed at preventing anything like Suharto’s long-lasting dictatorship. This spirit can be said to have been betrayed, because Joko reportedly maneuvered to prepare a career path for his son to rise to the presidential office after his successor by intervening in the Constitutional Court’s judgment and the latest presidential election.

What will likely happen to Indonesia from now on, politically and economically? What should we pay attention to?

Prabowo’s lifelong dream was to become president. At 72, his health may be a matter for concern. He may not serve very long. What will he do as a new president? In that regard, what matters is how effectively he can shore up his political power base because he failed to make a group of pro-Prabowo parties the largest force in the Indonesian parliament in February’s general elections.

In the 580-strong House of Representatives election held simultaneously with the presidential vote, four of the parties that had endorsed the Prabowo-Gibran ticket won seats in the lower house. They likely secured a total of 280 seats, which is shy of a majority. The lower house’s final seat allocations are to be officially announced pending the settlement of all potential election disputes by the Constitutional Court. In a related development, the PDI-P — known in English as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and led by ex-President Megawati Sukarnoputri — is expected to remain the largest single party in the lower house, as it is likely to have gained 110 seats.

Until his inauguration day in October, Prabowo will do his best to lure as many parties as possible into a ruling coalition in exchange for ministerial posts. A matter for attention is what kind of relationships he will establish with Megawati, who chose him as her running mate in the 2009 presidential election and led the PDI-P to retain the greatest strength in the new lower house in the recent parliamentary elections, as well as outgoing President Joko, who has broken with her. The nature of Prabowo’s ruling coalition will be considerably affected by the way their relations evolve.

For his part, the outgoing president wants to hold on to his own and his family’s security and influence after his successor assumes the presidency. One of Joko’s stratagems for this is the election of his eldest son as the next vice president. But the party his second son headed and which called itself “the President’s Party” failed to obtain parliamentary seats in the recent elections.

As president, Joko has noticeably interfered in military and police leadership personnel matters. Prabowo may do the same thing much more thoroughly. Such interventions by an incumbent government leader would often politicize the armed forces and lead to military intervention in the event of a crisis. I am not saying that Indonesia’s democracy is on the brink of collapse. Still, the possibility cannot be absolutely ruled out that the 2024 elections will be remembered as a watershed moment for democracy in Indonesia.

Expectations for better well-being

Indonesia’s economy is another point of attention. In the past decade, from 2014 to 2023, its real income per capita as measured in the local currency increased by 30.4%. Such a growth rate makes people experience firsthand an improvement in their standards of living. The country has also succeeded in halting inflation. Against the backdrop of such economic achievements, the incumbent president has enjoyed high levels of support.

This also means that the Indonesian people have high expectations for further improvement in their standards of living in the years to come. If they are let down, Indonesia will face political instability.

During the presidential election, Prabowo pledged to continue Joko’s policies. They include heavily investing in infrastructure such as expressway and railway construction, building a new capital, imposing export curbs on nickel and other natural resources and increasing added value for those resources through domestic industrial processing (known as downstreaming).

The problem for the incoming president is the dire fiscal straits his administration may find itself in because of fiscal indiscipline.

Given the income disparity between the existing capital, Jakarta, and other parts of the country, it is understandable how important infrastructure development is for Indonesia. But building a new capital from scratch in the middle of nowhere will require a huge amount of funds that Indonesia can ill afford.

As defense minister, Prabowo entered into agreement after agreement, prior to the presidential election, to purchase frigates and other large-scale military assets. But the government earmarked very limited funds for his deals, due to the finance minister’s opposition. Now that Prabowo is set to be the next president, it may be a different story. If that is the case, Indonesia’s fiscal situation will likely deteriorate at an accelerated pace.

Diplomatic, security challenges

Prabowo will also have to tackle Indonesia’s ongoing diplomatic and security challenges. As the largest member of ASEAN, Indonesia has respected ASEAN unity while promoting a “free and active” foreign policy. As its national security policy assumes the U.S. military presence in the region as given, its military spending does not reach even the equivalent of 1% of its GDP.

However, the post-Cold War era of peace between the superpowers has already gone. Southeast Asia has become a major theater for competition between world powers. As a result, ASEAN unity is reeling.

China is not only Indonesia’s largest trading partner but also the second biggest inward investor for the Southeast Asian country. As such, China is playing a highly important role in facilitating Indonesia’s infrastructure development and helping increase its high value-added “downstreaming” industrial policy. With its economic relations with China deepening, however, the manufacturing sector’s share of the Indonesian economy shrank from more than 30% to about 20% in the past 20 years or so. In the South China Sea, Jakarta and Beijing have been at odds over exclusive economic zone rights.

Indonesia is expected to maintain a diplomatic balance among Japan, Australia, the United States and China for the time being. Apparently to demonstrate this foreign policy stance, Prabowo visited China and Japan recently on his first post-election foreign trip. Yet, once its economy grows further, Indonesia will likely be increasingly tempted — like India — to begin behaving like a global power.

Takashi Shiraishi

Shiraishi is a scholar of Asian studies. He was the chancellor of the Prefectural University of Kumamoto until the end of March 2024. Before that, he was the president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in 2011-17 and the president of the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization in 2007-18.

The original article in Japanese appeared in the April 7 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.