In a record year for elections around the world, Indonesia’s February 14, 2024, vote is set to be one of the largest – and it will be one of the sternest tests for democracy’s progress.
Voters are expected to turn out in record numbers to choose some 20,000 national, provincial and district parliamentary representatives in what will be the world’s largest single-day election. Indonesia does not allow votes to be cast in advance.
While the scale of the election might seem to suggest a vibrant state of democracy in Indonesia, multiple factors – including a voting system susceptible to money politics and vote buying, alleged violations of election rules, the sheer number of down-ballot candidates and a cacophony of political messages on social media – make it difficult for voters to know what they are voting for and to effectively express their preferences.
Indonesia’s General Elections Commission reports that as many as 204 million voters are enrolled for the election, with about 114 million of them under 40 years of age. Polls say the top issues for younger voters include unaffordable basic goods, lack of employment opportunities, high poverty rates, expensive health services and poor education quality and service.
Meanwhile, there are concerns among many observers that Indonesia’s democracy has been backsliding in recent years.
Southeast Asia’s largest economy
As an expert on Indonesia’s international relations, I see how the election has implications far beyond the sprawling archipelago’s borders and comes at a crucial time.
Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy but faces getting caught in what economists call the middle-income trap, where its wages are too high but productivity too low to be competitive.
Indonesia also plays a crucial geopolitical role in the Indo-Pacific. Its growing economic dependence on China and regional tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea have foreign policy observers and investors watching the election closely.
The US government sees Indonesia’s democracy as critical to regional stability and, at least for the last two decades, US-Indonesia relations have been built on shared values of democracy. Yet the election takes place against a backdrop of increasing democratic fragility.
Telltale signs include voter intimidation, government attempts to restrict critics and dissent in a show of executive overreach and changes in election laws to tilt the playing field toward favored candidates and so-called “nepo babies.”
Voters will choose among the three presidential candidates vying to be the next president: Prabowo Subianto, a former military officer and politician who is running for president for the third time; Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of Central Java; and Anies Baswedan, an academic, and former culture and education minister and governor of Jakarta.
The three candidates all promise to improve living standards, accelerate economic growth and infrastructure development, protect Indonesia’s resources against foreign exploitation and territorial sovereignty, promote environmental sustainability, advance human rights and democracy and eliminate corruption.
Despite their similar campaign talking points, there are some differences. On trade, for example, Subianto favors protectionism. Baswedan and Pranowo support a market-based approach and a balanced approach between protecting national industries and fostering foreign investment.
On one of the main issues of the day, the relocation of the capital city of Indonesia, Baswedan is the most critical of the candidates. He has vowed to review the project, but is unlikely to stop the move even if he wins since the plan is already formalized into law.
Massive spending and vote buying
The presence of many candidates – for example, there are 300 in Jakarta alone, including celebrities and cabinet ministers from 17 parties, vying for 21 seats in the House of Representatives – might suggest a vibrant democracy. However, the massive spending among them increases the risk of vote buying.
Furthermore, due to the current open-list proportional voting systems, candidates must compete against their party peers to win a seat. This system creates a fierce competition among candidates and increases the chance of vote buying.
Political scientist Burhanuddin Muhtadi argues that the problem affects 10% of voters and may be enough of an issue to sway the outcome of elections. In addition, celebrity candidates and those with large social media followings and deep pockets will find it easier to gain support.
A glut of campaign messaging does not lead to a more informed citizenry. Instead, citizens are heavily targeted by social media with populist overtones. And despite the digital bombardment, there is actually little information about party platforms, candidate track records or policy details – a problem when the sheer number of candidates is so large.
Financial irregularities tied to election funding have also dogged parties across the political spectrum, leading the Association for Election and Democracy to cite a worrisome trend of citizens coming to see money politics as acceptable within a competitive democracy. The other challenge during the election campaign is the lack of accountability and transparency for campaign funding.
A slide toward autocracy
The decline in the quality of Indonesia’s democracy has been years in the making. A 2023 report by V-Dem Democracy Institute highlights several factors in its slide toward autocracy.
Limited freedom to publicly criticize the government is one reason, and numerous examples of intimidation and attacks on students, academics and activists who are critical of the administration have been documented.
Strategic election manipulation is another form of backsliding, encompassing a range of activity geared toward tilting the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents.
In a notable case, President Joko Widodo’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, mayor of Solo, was cleared by a constitutional court ruling to run for vice president. The ruling, issued by a court led by the president’s brother, stated that the age restriction for presidential candidates that they should be at least 40 years old does not apply to those who have served as mayors, regents or governors. While Widodo claims not to have intervened in the ruling, there is a clear benefit to his family.
Electoral intimidation is a problem disproportionately affecting civil servants and people in poor neighborhoods. Power brokers have reportedly told some civil servants to vote for particular candidates, intimating that refusal will mean being asked to serve in some remote places in Indonesia.
People in areas with high poverty rates have allegedly received threats that cash transfer programs that would benefit the community will be revoked unless they vote for certain candidates.
All of this takes place as younger Indonesians look for change and better lives. Their hopes for a democratic future where issues important to them can be solved, as well as securing Indonesia’s role on the global stage as a democratic partner ensuring regional stability, ride on the outcome of the election.