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3 things you should know about Indonesia's presidential elections

JAKARTA, Indonesia — As Indonesians prepare to head to the polls to elect a new president Wednesday, the nation's young and enthusiastic electorate are a key feature.

They may decide whether the world's third-largest democracy maintains its trajectory of economic development and political reform, or slides backward toward the authoritarian politics of a generation ago.

According to government statistics, young voters — both millennials born after 1980 and Generation Z voters born after 1996 — account for more than half of the nation's 204 million eligible voters, the highest proportion in any Indonesian election.

This is the country's fifth election since the fall of military dictator Suharto in 1998.

The main candidates are Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who holds a commanding lead in opinion polls over Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan, both former provincial governors.

Subianto is running on a ticket with vice presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming, mayor of Surakarta, who is President Joko Widodo's eldest son.

If no candidate gets an absolute majority, there will be a runoff vote in June.

Candidates target young voters

The excitement of young voters was palpable at Jakarta's GBK stadium, where Prabowo held his final pre-election rally.

"Mr. Prabowo is cuddly and kind and ... I'm a bit nervous," giggles first time-voter and Islamic school student Ulfa Nurmaulida, wearing a black headscarf. She adds that she learns about Prabowo "on social media, TikTok, YouTube, TV."

Prabowo's campaign team has packaged him as a cuddly dancing grandpa. At the rally, his pudgy, smiling avatar beams out from giant inflatable statues and baby blue T-shirts. The tactic appears to be effective, with one poll showing that 60% of Gen-Z voters and 42% of millennials back Prabowo.

"You need the tools, right? And these tools really work" with young voters says Rosan Roeslani, Prabowo's campaign manager and former Indonesian ambassador to the U.S., "because they can digest easily what is the vision and mission of our candidates."

Prabowo, a former army special forces commander, lost to Jokowi in 2014 and 2019 elections. So "people know already Mr. Prabowo is very assertive," Roeslani says. "But we need to show the other side of Mr. Prabowo."

A man records a campaign video for social media to be used by Ukon Furkon Sukanda, a legislative candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia, Jan. 10.
Bay Ismoyo / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A man records a campaign video for social media to be used by Ukon Furkon Sukanda, a legislative candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia, Jan. 10.

Continuity and its risks

Prabowo is expected to largely continue the policies of President Widodo, or "Jokowi," as Indonesians call him. President Widodo is not up for reelection as he's serving his final term.

Through his two five-year terms, Indonesia's economy — Southeast Asia's largest — has grown at about 5% a year. His infrastructure building, cash and food assistance to the poor and health and education policies have been popular.

Indonesia is the world's largest producer of nickel, used in making electric vehicle batteries, and Jokowi has barred the export of raw nickel, to help Indonesia move up the value chain from mining to manufacturing.

Jokowi started out as a furniture maker, and his rise to the top seemed to herald a more egalitarian and democratic style of Indonesian politics. He promised to redress human rights abuses committed under Suharto's military rule.

Jokowi's move to protect his legacy, though, has alienated some supporters.

"We trusted him, says political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar. "We in Indonesia have been lulled into a sense of complacency," she adds, "about our democratic progress."

Last October, Indonesia's Constitutional Court eased the requirement that presidential and vice presidential candidates need to be at least 40 years old, clearing the way for Jokowi's eldest son Gibran to run for vice president.

Critics pointed out that the court's chief justice is Jokowi's brother-in-law, and assailed the court's decision as riddled with conflict of interest, nepotism and political dynasty-building.

The justice was demoted for ethical violations, but the court let the ruling stand.

There have also been reports of using poverty-alleviation funds to buy votes, the intimidation of critics of Jokowi and Prabowo and mobilization of civil servants, soldiers and police to vote for Prabowo.

"This reminds everyone — at least people who remember — of the New Order government" of Suharto, says Dewi Fortuna Anwar.

Human rights remains an issue

Young voters born after the fall of Suharto may not remember, but Prabowo serves as a reminder for those who do.

His running means "this election is an existential moment for the pro-democracy and human rights movement in Indonesia," says Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

Prabowo is Suharto's son-in-law. He received training in the 1980s from the U.S. military at Fort Benning, Ga. (now Fort Moore) and Fort Bragg, N.C. (now Fort Liberty).

Indonesia's military gave him a discharge in 1998 for his role in human rights abuses, including Indonesia's U.S.-backed invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor.

Despite backing the invasion, the U.S. government laterbarred Prabowo from entering the United States for 20 years, up to 2020, when he was then issued a visa after becoming defense minister.

Jakarta-based defense analyst Connie Rahakundini Bakrie says this was not a good message for the U.S. to send. "In the eyes of Indonesians, Prabowo's sins are forgiven," she says.

Prabowo was also discharged for the forced disappearance of 23 political activists, 13 of whom have never been found.

Activist Mugiyanto Sipin was one of those who survived abduction, interrogation and torture by Indonesian soldiers, because higher military authorities intervened against Prabowo.

"Fighting for me and for families of the victims" of the disappearance cases "is like a lifetime task," Sipin says. "So we are prepared. We fight again. Hopefully to defeat him [Prabowo] again."

Sipin notes that Jokowi's administration has expressed regret (but not apologized) and given housing, education and medical benefits to a small portion of Suharto's victims and their families, but that is one policy that he is not optimistic that Prabowo will continue.

Yosef Riadi contributed to this story in Jakarta.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.