Indonesia, one of the two strongest democracies in Southeast Asia, will next hold presidential elections in 2024. After allegedly flirting with the idea of trying to change the law to allow himself a third term, current president Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has backed down and will be out of office in 2024.
Although the election is two years away, current defense minister Prabowo Subianto has apparently thrown his hat into the ring. He has registered his party for the 2024 national elections, a significant sign that he plans to run for president for the third time. (He lost twice to Jokowi, but then joined the Jokowi "big tent" cabinet as defense minister.) Jokowi handily beat Prabowo, but without Jokowi in the 2024 race, Prabowo could be a much stronger candidate than in the prior two elections. He is charismatic, has near-universal name recognition in Indonesia, and has remained in the national spotlight in his role as defense minister.
It's unfortunate that Jokowi helped to rehabilitate Prabowo, because Prabowo would be a major danger to democracy in Indonesia. (In my recent blog, I explain how democracy could be worse off in many Southeast Asian countries in 2023 compared to prior years). Jokowi could even possibly endorse Prabowo in the 2024 elections, as their parties have grown closer.
Prabowo has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Indonesia’s groundbreaking democratic reforms in recent decades have been a mistake. He believes the country would be better off with a recentralization of power in a small number of hands in Jakarta, which dominated the country for years under the Suharto dictatorship. (Prabowo was once married to Suharto's daughter but they have since divorced.)
Quite a few top Jakarta-based politicians share the idea that politics has become too decentralized and broadly democratic, and power should be recentralized in the capital. With Prabowo in power, there could be dramatic moves to end many regional and local elections. These elections have empowered Indonesians and also helped make local politicians far more accountable for their finances and overall governance.
Prabowo also possesses all the warning signs of the type of authoritarian populist who has won elections in recent years in many parts of the globe, including in Southeast Asia (Rodrigo Duterte, Thaksin Shinawatra, for starters.) His prior campaigns all revolved around the idea that he alone could fix problems, and presented him as an almost God-like figure; he rode into one rally on a horse. He has been closely linked to groups involved in demonizing and attacking religious minorities, a classic tactic of an authoritarian populist, and many of these groups strongly supported him in the prior elections. He used the last campaign to spread unfounded rumors that Jokowi, a Muslim, was secretly a religious and ethnic minority (a Chinese Christian). Although Jokowi won the election, these charges sparked riots in Jakarta.
Prabowo, as I have noted before, also has an allegedly terrible rights record. In a country in which powerful people already enjoy enormous impunity, a Prabowo presidency would be a signal of maximum impunity. According to Human Rights Watch, Prabowo is alleged to have overseen a massacre in the early 1980s of some three hundred people in a town that was then part of East Timor, then a province of Indonesia. He also allegedly played a role in brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy rights activists in Jakarta and other parts of the country during the Suharto regime, according to Human Rights First and many other watchdogs and reports. For those reasons, both Australia and the United States denied Prabowo a visa for years. His ascendance to the top office would be a disaster.