A strongman at the helm: On Indonesia’s presidential election  

Indonesia must avoid the trap of populist nativism of authoritarian rulers

February 16, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 12:46 am IST

In Indonesia’s presidential election, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, a former general linked to violent actions by the military in East Timor, Aceh, and West Papua, appears likely to emerge victorious after early trends indicated more than 57% of votes in his favour. His probable win indicates a vote for continuity, as he had the torch passed to him by his predecessor, the popular Joko Widodo, suggesting that the latter’s policies on non-alignment in the strategic tussles between the U.S. and China and plans to build a new capital city, Nusantara, will be pursued as before. While full results are not expected for the next few weeks, the “quick counts”, or government-approved polling samples, suggest that Mr. Subianto succeeded in winning the support especially of younger voters, who might have been impressed by his image makeover on social media, including Tik Tok appearances hinting that he was more a friendly grandfather figure than a 72-year-old strongman leader with a shadowy past and questionable human rights record. In a sense, his political career has come full circle too, because his likely win will wipe his slate clean of memories of bitter rivalry with Mr. Widodo, to whom he lost the presidential race in 2014 and 2019. Their conciliatory moves that followed the 2019 election paved the path to political redemption and renewal for Mr. Subianto, as he was transformed from Mr. Widodo’s rival to his trusted aide and Defence Minister.

While Indonesia held out hope at the turn of the century as one of Asia’s great tiger economies with immense potential for developmental uplift impacting the lives of the poor, the persistence of populist political leadership, with echoes of the dictatorship era under Suharto, has vexed those who hoped for democracy to take deeper roots. For example, Mr. Subianto already has a reputation for pushing populist policies such as support for Islamist extremists and denigrating ethnic and religious minorities such as the Chinese and Christians. There is also an unsavoury thread of nepotism favouring the elites within political circles, such as his bringing in Mr. Widodo’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Raka, as his running mate despite the latter falling short of the age threshold to run for high public office. Indonesia is a critical nation on the global stage, not only because its strategic calculus matters to the great power game between the U.S., China, India and others but also because it is a potential ray of hope for Asian resurgence in a post-COVID world. Yet, if it falls into the trap of populist nativism heralded by iron-fisted authoritarians, its prospects for steady economic progress could be hobbled by the baser collective instincts of its polity.

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