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2024 Indonesian Election: Subianto’s Victory is a Win for the Elite

Isha Desai | Indo Pacific Fellow

2024 Indonesian Election candidates list in Banten. Image credit: VulcanSphere via Wikimedia Commons.


On 14 February 2024, Indonesia held the largest one-day election in the world to choose their new president. The election marked a turning point in Indonesian politics, signalling whether the country would move forward with newfound democratic ideals or step backwards towards an authoritarian style of leadership. Indonesia transitioned to a democracy in 1998, when the Asian financial crisis amassed public opposition towards authoritarian dictator Suharto and drove him to resign. Even so, newcomers struggled to break into politics until 2014, when Joko Widodo became President. The elite have retained control in Indonesia’s ‘democratic’ system, leveraging wealth and influence consolidated under ex-military dictator Suharto’s 32-year rule. As a result, the weakly democratic political trend continued in the 2024 elections in which new candidates were disadvantaged, as military elite Prabowo Subianto was elected as President of Indonesia. In terms of the election’s regional implications, the outcome does not appear to have largely impacted Australia’s relationship with Indonesia thus far, with whom they held high-level talks on 14 February.

 

To understand how the affluent and powerful class have maintained dominance since 2014, this article firstly discusses the background of the main candidates and conditions of the election before considering the regional implications of Subianto’s win.

 

The Candidates


Newly-elected Indonesian President Subianto was advantaged by strong ties to the Indonesian military. A 72-year-old former special forces commander and the ex-partner of military dictator Suharto’s daughter, the new President’s campaign strategy portrayed him as a ‘cat-loving grandpa’ standing for stronger nationalism in Indonesia. However, he was also the most controversial candidate. Reports show that Subianto was the captain of a counter-insurgency operation in East Timor that led to the massacre of 55 civilians. Subianto has also been questioned about involvement in the 1997 disappearance of pro-democracy activists in Indonesia, thirteen of whom remain unaccounted for. As such, Prabowo Subianto has been described as a ‘direct threat to Indonesian democracy’.

 

Anies Baswedan symbolises how the elite class have maintained influence through the academic sphere. Baswedan leveraged a previous role as a university president to break into politics and maintain power amongst the elite class. When campaigning to be governor of Jakarta in 2016, he vilified ethnic-Chinese and Christian Indonesians with an anti-colonial message that targeted the socioeconomic effects of colonialism brought on by ‘foreign populations’. Taking a revised approach in 2024, his presidential campaign strategy included support for all religions and highlighted that he gave building permits to churches in his former role of governor. Voters were sceptical of this contrastingly inclusive campaign message.

 

The third candidate was Ganjar Pranowo, a 55-year-old technocrat whose campaign and election outcome demonstrated difficulties faced by candidates outside the elite class. While Pranowo solely relied on the support of his party, the PDI-P led alliance, his running mate was President Widodo’s coordinating security minister, Mahfud MD, meaning that even he had strong links to the Indonesian elite. Nonetheless, The Economist positively described him as a ‘man of the people’, and as such he was relying on the success of an active grassroots campaign.

 

Overall, elitism in the 2024 election remained prevalent with all three candidates enjoying support from the military, academic or political upper class. This consolidation of power created a barrier to entry for non-elite political opponents. Ultimately, Subianto’s military legacy and ties to a former leader provided the power and resources necessary to win the election.

 

Regional Implications


Subianto won the election with 58 per cent of the vote, stating that his win was a “victory for all Indonesians”. However, many are sceptical. Professor Yohanes Sulaiman from Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani implied that Subianto’s impulsiveness and nationalism makes him “Indonesia’s Donald Trump”. One major regional implication from Subianto’s win is the future of the South China Sea. Since gaining independence, Indonesia has pursued a ‘free and active’ foreign policy. However, it is involved in a tense situation in the North Natuna Sea where China has routinely forayed into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, intimidating fishing boats. The disparity in resources between the two countries means that Indonesia has a geopolitical disadvantage. Subianto is considered to be a ‘wild card’ on this issue, where he may increase defence cooperation or take a nationalist approach.


The other key issue is Subianto’s alleged human rights abuses. If Indonesia moves back towards an oppressive and authoritarian regime, ‘academics, journalists and civil society groups should prepare for the worst’ according to the Legal Aid Institute Foundation of Indonesia. This may have negative implications for the country’s diplomatic relations with allies who value human rights highly. Thus far, Indonesia and Australia have held meetings to strengthen security ties and defence cooperation. This shows that Indonesia’s ongoing human rights violations have not undermined Australia’s willingness to cooperate, especially in a tense and vulnerable geopolitical region. These meetings could signify Australia’s priority to preserve regional ties or maintain some influence on Indonesian foreign policy. However, the state of human rights under Subianto’s presidency and their consequences for long-term diplomatic relations remain to be seen.


The 2024 Indonesian election demonstrates how the affluent class have retained power through ties to the military elite. However, the specific consequences of Subianto’s win have not yet revealed the country’s future role in the region. Whilst the relationship between Indonesia and Australia has not visibly changed since the new President came to power, Subianto’s impulsiveness and nationalism may accelerate tensions between the country and global power China.




Isha Desai is the Indo Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is a graduate from the University of Sydney in Politics, International Relations, and Political Economy.


Isha is an emerging researcher and policy analyst with a keen interest in Australia’s future in the Indo Pacific, climate security and foreign policy. She has worked as a policy researcher for the Australian Humans Rights Commission, the United States Studies Centre and most recently Legal Aid NSW where she co-authored a literature review that was awarded the 2023 Sydney Policy Reform Project Prize.

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