Indonesia is in a presidential mood. That is to say, citizens are enthused by the idea of looming change. The three main contenders for the election in February next year are serving defence minister Prabowo Subianto, former education and culture minister (and former Governor of Jakarta) Anies Baswedan, and former governor of Central Java Ganjar Pranowo. Among themselves, the three represent a rich combination of professional and political competence. But only one of them will win.
The decision lies in the hands of nearly 205 million voters, a third of whom are younger than 30, in the world’s fourth-largest populous nation and its third-largest democracy after India and America. No matter how Indonesians decide, they would prove that the nature of their elections has changed forever from the days of the dictator Suharto, under whom the ruling party Golkar’s grip on electoral power was a foregone conclusion in parliamentary elections. Only the percentage of votes mattered, and even that could be predicted within a tolerable margin of statistical error. Those strongman days have vanished forever, and the rest of the world, beginning with Indonesia’s Asean neighbours, is watching. The full democratic weight of the Indonesian people will make itself felt come February. These are exhilarating times.
So, let us take a look at what each of the contenders offers to Indonesian voters.
Prabowo, who was once married to former president Suharto’s daughter, rose rapidly through the ranks of the praetorian military to serve in the Special Forces (Kopassus) and then head the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad). Along with Suharto himself and his intelligence agency Bakin, Kopassus and Kostrad accounted for the four most feared names in the vast archipelago stretching over 17,000 islands. Prabowo was dismissed from the military because of suspected human rights abuses, exiled in Jordan, and banned from travelling to the US.
But since those years, whose provenance lay in the fall of Suharto and the May 1998 riots, Prabowo has re-entered Indonesian politics with a vengeance. He vied for the presidency unsuccessfully against Joko Widodo in 2014 and 2019, but settled for the position of defence minister in the second Jokowi Administration in order to await his third chance at the presidency after the popular Jokowi could no longer run for office after two terms. That third chance has arrived now, along with the remarkable advantage of Prabowo gaining Jokowi’s son Gibran as his vice-presidential running mate.
Not for nothing is the coming election being called Prabowo’s to lose. He has reinvented himself from being a ruthless general into becoming an avuncular guardian of the national polity. He has downplayed his roots in the military, disavowed his succeeding search for a political base among Indonesia’s vast Muslim majority, kept his legendary temper under apparent control, and undergone an image makeover that allows him to appear cool if not cute to younger Indonesians
If anything, he is a Gaullist figure, the reference being to French General Charles de Gaulle who went on to win the country’s presidency on the back of popular expectations for the recovery and restoration of France’s historical prominence after the national humiliation suffered during World War II.
What Prabowo stands for is a no-nonsense kind of Indonesian nationalism which his detractors might call right-wing but which appeals to a new generation of Indonesians who have little knowledge of their autocratic past and long for regional and global recognition today that is commensurate with Indonesia’s undeniable growth into an Asian economic powerhouse.
Prabowo has become a charismatic figure perhaps because Jokowi is hardly charismatic in spite of his eloquence, his undoubted administrative gifts as president and his occasional attempts to emulate the regal symbolism that sanctified Javanese kingship. Prabowo is the new symbolic king-in-the-making, perhaps the first credible one after the ignoble departure of his overthrown father-in-law, Suharto.
Anies is a milder figure than Prabowo. He is very much a product of the Indonesian democratic renaissance that followed Suharto’s downfall. Intellectually, he is a distinguished product of the Indonesian education ecosystem, having graduated in economics from the prestigious Gadjah Mada University and having followed that up with a masters in public management from the University of Maryland and a doctorate in political science from Northern Illinois University. He was rector of Paramadina University and brought his keen scholarly and administrative insights to bear on his reformist ministership of the education and culture portfolio.
An assertive efficiency marked his gubernatorial tenure in Jakarta, but the campaigning for it had produced an astonishing degree of religious divisiveness in the region. Anies’s overt courting of the Muslim vote turned controversial amidst a tight race with the incumbent governor, the vastly popular ethnic Chinese Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, whose political career plummeted when he was accused of blasphemy. Anies’s closeness to radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) cemented his religious credentials among hardline Muslims but did little to reassure minorities and liberal Muslims about his inclusive vision for Indonesia.
The difference between Prabowo and Anies is that the former is an Indonesian nationalist with a military past and the latter is an Indonesian nationalist with a Muslim future. Prabowo, for all his past, is anchored in the pancasila philosophy that Suharto, for all his manifold faults, enshrined as an active principle of state policy during the New Order era.
Prabowo’s military instincts are fundamentally secular but are open to the tactical adjustments necessary to make him acceptable to Indonesian Muslims who have been exposed to the gradual incursion of religious sentiment into public policy since Suharto’s overthrow.
By contrast, Anies, for all his liberal education in the West, has discovered that the way to the Indonesian political mind is through religion. He cannot be faulted. The secular structures of power — the presidency, the military and the intelligence apparatus — that underpinned the New Order have to share power with religious structures in Indonesia’s latest order.
Ganjar Pranowo’s democratic credentials come free of close association with either the military or religion. A product of the Faculty of Law at Gadjah Mada, he struggled with impecunious circumstances and participated in student demonstrations He earned a postgraduate qualification from another prestigious institution, the University of Indonesia. His gubernatorial performance was marked by many successes. Anti-corruption efforts, pro-poor financial loan reforms, the provision of identity cards that gave farmers protected access to subsidised fertilisers, and efforts to protect villages from natural disasters brought him well-deserved adulation.
However, his financial overtures to religiosity did not help. An edict of his required all state civil servants to pay a religious tax that went into disaster assistance, the health sector, the repair of uninhabitable houses, education and Islamic boarding schools and mosques. These initiatives left him without a mass base of his own and therefore dependent on his party.
Without the military as the past and religion as the future, Ganjar is perhaps the weakest of the three candidates. However, now that he no longer enjoys the support of Jokowi (whose son is with Prabowo), he is free to criticise the latter’s record in office, thus drawing the votes of those disenchanted with the status quo. Prabowo and Anies, for all the differences between them, both belong to the forces of continuity, while Ganjar inhabits the “change” end of the political spectrum.
A democratic election is defined by its ability to throw up surprises. Indonesian democracy has matured to the point where it is more than capable of throwing up surprises. No one should write off Ganjar.
As Indonesia’s politics has matured, so has its economics. Liberalisation is the norm; deviations from it constitute the exception. The policy platforms of the three candidates converge broadly on the need for continuing reforms although they diverge over administrative issues such as severing revenue functions from the Finance Ministry to a new revenue agency acting directly under presidential control. Such fiscal capture would compromise the ministry’s integrity.
On the political front, Anies and Ganjar are on the same page because they wish to keep up the tempo of political liberalisation. By contrast, Prabowo’s previous comments that hinted at reversing some aspects of democratisation, such as dispensing with regional elections, do not bode well for Indonesia’s democratic evolution.
On the external front, all three candidates first wish to preserve Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy and then expand its international space amidst great-power rivalry.
All in all, Indonesia is positioned for an exciting political era in which the social energies of an excellent people who have struggled since their independence in 1949 to establish the honour and dignity of Southeast Asia’s largest state stand ready to surge forward.
The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Kissinger Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. The board is chaired by the global statesman, Henry A Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize Winner. This article reflects the writer’s personal views