In Indonesia, personality trumps democratic ideals - Hindustan Times
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In Indonesia, personality trumps democratic ideals

Feb 19, 2024 10:04 PM IST

The recent elections demonstrate a trend wherein a few individuals dominate politics. There are similarities in this regard between India and Indonesia.

Unofficial results of the Indonesian elections indicate that Prabowo Subianto will become the next president of the country. A second round of voting may not be needed to decide the winner. Prabowo was the opponent of the current president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in the previous election but was made the minister of defence by the latter. Jokowi intended to create a conducive environment for governance by incorporating his opponent into the government. Prabowo was a former military general and his closeness with the armed forces might have been a consideration.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) shakes hands with Indonesia�s Defence Minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) arrive for the inauguration of the National Defense Central Hospital (RSPPN) in Jakarta on February 19, 2024. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) shakes hands with Indonesia�s Defence Minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) arrive for the inauguration of the National Defense Central Hospital (RSPPN) in Jakarta on February 19, 2024. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)(AFP)

However, the relationship between Jokowi and Prabowo became too close. Jokowi’s 37-year-old son, Gibran, is Prabowo’s running mate (vice-president nominee). Hence, there is a perception that Jokowi is supporting this team. Jokowi’s own party had put up a candidate (and there was a third candidate too who was somewhat independent but got the support of a few religious movements). Jokowi seems to have ditched his own party due to his son’s political ambitions.

Gibran’s nomination as Prabowo’s running mate was not a smooth decision. He was underaged for the position based on the current law, but the constitutional court decided in his favour. One of the judges who is part of this decision is a relative of Jokowi, and there are allegations that the judicial process was compromised.

Jokowi continues to be a popular leader. But he has exhausted the cap on the number of presidential terms in the country. His popularity should have helped his party to retain power, but it is helping the Opposition leader due to the controversial decision related to his son. Many ordinary people voted for Prabowo due to their support for Jokowi. His son also enjoys a certain level of approval, probably due to his father’s record in politics.

A minority view is that democracy could possibly regress as an outcome of this election. The country saw an advancement of democracy during the last few decades after the end of the dictatorship. Jokowi’s emergence can be seen as a manifestation of the decline of elite-capture. However, Prabowo has a controversial past. He was married into the family of Suharto, the dictator, and he was discharged from the military due to possible human rights violations. There were allegations of his links to the kidnapping and killing of politicians opposed to Suharto, but he was not proven guilty. Hence, a number of commentators see a possible return of authoritarian tendencies in the country as Prabowo takes charge, even as he tries to project himself as a leader of all people.

Given Gibran’s relatively young age and his father’s popularity, there is an apprehension that Indonesia is moving towards another period of dynastic politics. The children of elite rulers have played an important role in Indonesia’s politics in the past. This is continuing in the case of Jokowi, though he was probably the first from an ordinary family to become president. Jokowi’s shift from his own party may erode popular support for it. The third candidate, despite his education and other credentials, polled merely 20% of the votes. All this could weaken competitive democracy in Indonesia.

Indonesia is an important player in the global economy for a number of reasons. It is also the only country in the region which is close to both the US and China (and can possibly play the role of a link between them). It has rich deposits of metals and elements critical for the manufacturing of electric vehicles. It is also the fourth most populous nation, and given its youth bulge, its demographic dividend may be reflected in global economic choices. Jokowi successfully projected political stability, and this attracted foreign investors. He also ushered in certain improvements in the lives of people. The good thing about the Prabowo-Gibran win is that Jokowi’s policies could continue. This may alleviate the anxieties of international investors and other players.

Though there are overlapping concerns and no major disagreements between India and Indonesia, the relationship between these two countries has not flourished. These are geographically close to each other (as Indonesia’s Banda Aceh province is just 200 kms away from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), with shared concerns on the happenings in the Indian Ocean. Indonesia’s relationship with China is driven more by economic considerations and is also shaped by the presence of a sizeable Chinese population in the country. The hope is the new regime is able to balance between both interests.

The recent elections demonstrate a trend wherein a few individuals (not their parties) dominate politics. There are similarities in this regard between India and Indonesia.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University. The views expressed are personal

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