What does Prabowo-Gibran’s win mean for Indonesian democracy?

Given the tangible threat of democratic erosion in Indonesia, the country's next president has a lot to do in restoring and protecting democratic institutions.

Testriono and Aldi Nur Fandil Auliya

Testriono and Aldi Nur Fandil Auliya

The Jakarta Post


Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (left, front row) and running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka wave to their supporters on Feb. 14, 2024 at the Senayan Sports Hall in Jakarta. PHOTO: ANTARA/THE JAKARTA POST

February 20, 2024

JAKARTA – Prabowo-Gibran has secured over the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright in the first round. The final count still needs to be officially confirmed. However, most Indonesians have now accepted that the next five years will be under president Prabowo.

What would Prabowo-Gibran’s win mean for our democracy?

As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out in their 2018’s How Democracies Die, an essential test for democracies is not whether extremist demagogues or autocratic politicians such as Donald Trump in the United States emerge.

However, they argue, the test is whether political figures, particularly those in positions of authority, try to keep them from rising to the top by preventing them from running with tickets from mainstream parties, refusing to support or associate with them and, when needed, uniting with opponents to back democratic candidates.

Our democracy has failed the test.

On the one hand, we should be proud of the resilience of our democracy. Democracy requires all parties and candidates to compete in elections if they would like to gain a position either in executive or legislative offices.

The system has forced all politicians, including political, business and military leaders who built their fortunes during 32 years of Soeharto’s authoritarian rule, to use the election to run for office. This means democracy has successfully forced them to commit to a democratic system. Even Prabowo, the former son-in-law of Soeharto and former general with a blotted human rights record, had to run almost in every election after democratization to get power.

Nevertheless, given the tangible threat of democratic erosion in Indonesia, the country’s next president has a lot to do in restoring and protecting democratic institutions.

As reported by Freedom House (2022), Indonesian democracy has retreated every year since 2006. Democracy in Indonesia stagnated in the late Yudhoyono’s presidency years and then plunged into decline under Jokowi. Freedom House noted that some Indonesian democratic leaders are willing to sacrifice civil liberties, such as limiting the rights of minority groups, to maintain their popularity or the temptations to become populist leaders.

More importantly, authoritarian measures in Indonesia’s political development became more prevalent in the latter years of Jokowi’s presidency. Many academics, activists and students have protested the president’s alleged abuse of power in coopting democratic institutions.

The most recent case was how the president allegedly influenced the Constitutional Court, chaired by Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law, on a ruling on the presidential and vice-presidential age limit that paved the way for Gibran, Jokowi’s eldest son, to run for vice president alongside Prabowo.

Furthermore, as the office will most likely vest in Prabowo with pledges to carry on Jokowi’s legacies, the trend of democratic governance could very well be far from promising.

Prabowo is more a politician who has an abundance of resources, who cleverly takes benefits from the democratic system and has no precedence to be a bastion for democracy. Instead, his emergence to power carries a burden due to his involvement in cases of past human rights violations, for which, until now, Prabowo has not been held accountable.

This situation suggests that in the next regime under Prabowo, human rights issues will be far from resolved, instead further contributing to the weakening of democratic institutions.

Law enforcement and security agencies are very likely to continue to be skewed under the personal politics of the president. It is worth noting that under Jokowi’s administration, some democratic institutions have been abused. Jokowi has been able to consolidate his power by allegedly utilizing the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to hold political elites who stumble upon corruption cases “hostage” and brush off his political opponents.

As the previous administration’s successor, the bad legacies of Jokowi’s presidency would likely be emulated, or become even worse, by Prabowo, making it hard for people to believe that he would be capable of protecting democratic institutions. In the meantime, dynastic politics would greatly contribute to entrenching inequality, by shaping the uneven playing field of political competition and heightening the potential for corruption.

The trend will possibly put Indonesian democracy in jeopardy and make it vulnerable to competitive authoritarianism. In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are commonly perceived as the primary mechanism for acquiring and utilizing political power. However, because incumbents break the rules so frequently and severely, the system falls short of the accepted minimal requirements for democracy (Levitsky and Way, 2002). The resources of the status quo are of great worth to populist leaders like Jokowi who may use populist policies on behalf of his political interests.

What is left for optimism then? The future of democracy in Indonesia might hinge on the consistency and resistance of the opposition camp that is currently Prabowo-Gibran’s rival in the 2024 presidential election.

We expect that the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which proved to be an opposition during the two terms of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency, will take the opposition’s baton. It relies on many factors, including Megawati Soekarnoputri’s readiness to be in opposition, or whether she can be persuaded to throw in the towel and join the ruling coalition.

We also expect Anies’ commitment to continuing on the path of change, having signaled that he would be in opposition rather than joining a coalition that is projected to be built by Prabowo who will need a working majority in parliament.

The second reason for optimism is the fact that we have the independence of civil society organizations and sociopolitical activism. Some civil society organizations are vulnerable to cooptation by political leaders. However, the emergence of many activists, scholars and public intellectuals who voiced their criticisms in response to the alleged abuse of power conducted by Jokowi is a sign of hope to avert the democratic breakdown.

Protecting our democracy requires more than just fright or outrage. As we have seen how our predecessors, colleagues and other fellow citizens have worked hard to give birth to the 1998 democratization, we should work harder to make our democracy live longer.

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