Front-running presidential candidate could pose a threat to democratic values in upcoming Indonesian elections

Front-running presidential candidate could pose a threat to democratic values in upcoming Indonesian elections
Indonesian Minister of Defense, Prabowo Subianto speaking at a plenary session of the 20th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, by Caroline Chia, via Reuters, 3rd June 2023


Nuno Daun

Southeast Asia & Pacific Team 

Global Human Rights Defence

Indonesia is set to hold elections on the 14th of February 2024 to elect a new President, Vice-President and People’s Consultative Assembly. According to polls, Prabowo Subianto, the current Minister of Defense is a favorite to win the presidency in the upcoming elections, after having received perceived support from the outgoing President Joko Widodo, whose son is running as Subianto’s running mate. However, taking Subianto’s past political opinions and views in conjunction with President Widodo’s favoritism toward the candidate, fears of rigged elections have risen.  


Prior to the establishment of Indonesia’s current democracy, the Presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto had aspirations of succeeding the former head of state, President Suharto who was in power from 1968 to 1998, who ran the country with an iron fist and was deemed by many as a dictator. Suharto was Subianto’s former boss and father-in-law.

In 1998, when Subianto was in control of the Kostrad (The Army Strategic Reserve Command), Subianto ordered the kidnapping and torture of 9 democracy activists. One of the detainees recounted that he was tortured for days at an undisclosed location. Additionally, Subianto is also suspected of kidnapping 13 other democracy activists who remain to this day and are presumed dead. Furthermore, he was accused of various atrocities during his time in the military, and has stated that elections are against “his country’s culture.”

Current State of Affairs

As Subianto is leading the polls, many are afraid that he will try to revive Suharto’s tyrannical lead. The President candidate has continued to dismiss his past record. During this month’s presidential debate, he talked about the need to strengthen the military, saying that without it, a nation “will be crushed,” using the Gaza situation as an example.

In addition, Subianto’s human rights record is blotched with accusations of slaughtering hundreds in East Timor, an accusation that prevented him from entering the U.S. for many years. However, he was never charged in a court of law. 

Subianto’s political image has changed through the years. From a military figure in 2014, to a devout Muslim in 2019. After losing the last elections, he alleged voter fraud and called on Islamists to take to the streets in violent demonstrations. In the current elections, he has presented himself as a soft, gentle, grandfather-like figure. A persona which seems to resonate with young voters in Indonesia who did not live under Suharto’s regime. Thus, many are concerned that Subianto’s victory could pose a threat to Indonesia’s hard-fought democracy. 

In order to win and gain majority power, Subianto and his running mate will have to garner 51% of the votes.

As it stands, political experts and analysts expect that if Subianto wins, Indonesia will continue heading in the same path from a foreign affairs standpoint, perhaps with a higher emphasis on security.

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