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The Democratic Decline: SE Asian Ramifications of a Prabowo Victory

Tahlia Beckitt

Source: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP for Getty Images

The third largest democracy, fourth largest population and largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia is something of a sleeping giant. Previously punching below its weight in foreign policy, Indonesia is increasingly becoming a country to watch. Indeed, the last few years have seen Indonesia take a more visible role in Southeast Asian affairs. Despite a lack of personal engagement from President Joko Widodo (now former President), Indonesia chaired the G20 in 2022 and ASEAN in 2023.


And yet, as the world starts to pay more attention to Indonesia, cracks are slowly beginning to show.


It’s no secret that Indonesia’s democracy has been declining for much of the last decade. However, the recent election may be a nail in the coffin for Indonesia’s democratic dreams. Prabowo Subianto, the new President-elect, his ties to Suharto, anti-democratic sentiment and the political machine are unlikely to spell good news for freedoms within Indonesia. Furthermore, with his election coinciding with the increased global visibility of Indonesia, the fallout may not be limited to his nation.


Known to be volatile, ill-tempered and easily provoked, Prabowo’s temperament has little in common with his predecessor and former competitor Jokowi and has acted as a mark against his name in previous elections. Now 72 years old, the former army Lt. General has featured throughout various regimes in Indonesia, most notably beginning under Suharto. Politically motivated, ambitious and a true strategist, Prabowo thrived under Suharto’s regime, eventually marrying the dictator’s daughter in 1983. The same year, Prabowo allegedly spearheaded the Kraras massacres in East Timor, which claimed 287 lives. However, no formal charges have ever been laid against Prabowo due to a lack of hard evidence regarding his involvement.


Closely aligned with Suharto, Prabowo’s troops later kidnapped and tortured at least nine democracy student activists just before the May 1998 riots that ultimately saw the downfall of Suharto’s New Order. A further thirteen activists were also likely kidnapped between 1997 and 1998, however, these individuals have never been located and are presumed dead.


Following the fall of Suharto, Prabowo’s chequered past began to catch up with him. With democracy taking over Indonesia, Prabowo saw himself discharged from the military for “misinterpreting orders” and barred from entering the United States in response to his alleged record of human rights violations.


Despite living in exile in Jordan, Prabowo remained a significant figure in Indonesia, undertaking a career in business and politics, beginning with contesting the 2004 Indonesian elections and later founded the Gerindra political party in 2008. Campaigning against current President Joko Widodo in 2014 and again in 2019, Prabowo was unsuccessful in his political endeavours despite his newfound millionaire status and subsequent significant funds. Adopting a right-wing nationalist approach, Prabowo’s actions in 2019 mirrored those of Trump in 2020, with allegations of election fraud and subsequent widespread supporter riots.

2024 Election

This year however, an image reformation has seen Prabowo likened to a cuddly grandpa prone to dancing, nicknamed “gemoy,” in a play on words of the slang term “gemas,” meaning adorable. Going viral on social media, young voters were presented with a new persona that distanced Prabowo from his previous controversies, while his comments in rallies and debates maintained a level of assertiveness. Given that 20% of voters were under the age of 24, with a total 60% of voters being millennials or younger, the accusations against Prabowo predated much of his voting base, thus allowing for an easier reformation. The result of this reformation was compelling, with Prabowo becoming a cute, cuddly, yet strong leader capable of navigating an increasingly complex geopolitical situation.


Crucial to his victory was Jokowi’s unofficial endorsement, which allowed him to steal votes from PDI-P candidate Ganjar Pranowo, the party mate of the current president. Indeed, following Jokowi’s renewal after the 2019 election, he named Prabowo as Defence Minister. A common practice in Indonesia, opposition candidates are often incorporated into the ministry to create a whole-of-government approach to politics. However, in Prabowo’s case, this appointment allowed him to build an association with Jokowi, where he began reforming his image, claiming to have seen the truth in Jokowi’s own, relatively more progressive, brand of politics.


Jokowi’s support in the next election was ensured through the selection of his son as Prabowo’s running mate. Although Gibran Rakabuming Raka was technically too young to hold such an office, a controversial ruling by his uncle, Jokowi’s brother-in-law, removed this barrier. In the months that followed, Jokowi issued unofficial support for Prabowo, likely fixating on the idea of a political dynasty continued by his son.


With such support from the beloved President, it is therefore of no surprise that Prabowo was able to trump his opposition at the polls and later, at the voting booths.

Southeast Asian Ramifications

Moreover, politics does not occur in a vacuum, and Prabowo’s victory will likely see several ramifications occur within the Southeast Asian region. Throughout the election, all of the candidates refrained from detailing specific foreign policy intentions, therefore generating universal uncertainty regarding their intentions post election. However, given the opacity of Prabowo’s political inclinations, the lack of details promotes a greater proportional sense of unease.


Once a right-wing nationalist, Prabowo has pledged continuity with Jokowi’s decidedly not right-wing nationalist policies. However, once Prabowo becomes President, Jokowi’s influence will likely wane, leaving the potential for Prabowo to mirror Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Junior. Like Prabowo, Marcos initially won the election through the support of the former President and co-opted the President’s daughter as his Vice President. Once he ascended, Marcos shed his campaign promises and loyalty to the previous President and returned to his political roots.


Prabowo, like Marcos, has expressed anti-democratic sentiments in the past and has widely been seen as a potentially authoritarian leader. As such, a Prabowo presidency could easily contribute to the democratic decline of the region. Human rights will likely continue to be obstructed and democratic institutions, law enforcement and security agencies may be exploited and weakened in favour of personal politics and objectives.


Furthermore, Prabowo’s presidency will likely feature neither total continuity nor total rejection of Jokowi’s approach, instead combining relative continuity with increased assertiveness and outward-looking foreign policy. Growing up with an international perspective after spending much of his childhood overseas, Prabowo is known to be more interested in foreign policy than Jokowi and will likely adopt a more hands-on approach. Indonesia’s history of non-alignment will likely continue, however, Prabowo may adopt a greater wariness towards China. While Jokowi welcomed Chinese investment, Prabowo will likely take a more sceptical approach towards Indonesia’s growing economic dependence on China, leading to a slight pivot towards the USA. However, the shrewd strategy that Prabowo has become famous for will likely see Indonesia succeed in gaining benefits from both the US and China.


On the other hand, Prabowo will likely continue to pursue and promote ASEAN centrality, economic continuity and active foreign policy. Although Prabowo is unlikely to fully wake the sleeping giant of Indonesia’s potential influence, Southeast Asian nations will likely experience a more involved and assertive Indonesia, particularly in controversial areas of diplomacy such as the South China Sea.


Prabowo's troubling human rights record and commitment to uphold Jokowi's frequently undemocratic measures, combined with his previous disregard for democratic institutions does not spell good news for Indonesian democracy. A more authoritarian and assertive Indonesia under his leadership could potentially exacerbate the direction of other nations in Southeast Asia, particularly as democracy is already weakening in countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.


Prabowo has always been a polarising figure, and unfortunately, many of his true intentions remain unknown. Prabowo has either perfected the art of deception over the last five years or has truly gone back on his ideological roots. As such, predictions remain uncertain, as Prabowo’s claims of continuity war with his own personality and previously stated beliefs. However, Prabowo does place greater emphasis on foreign policy than his predecessor and as such, Indonesia is likely to take great strides within the arena, although the nature of those strides is not yet clear. A Prabowo Presidency will therefore likely see Indonesia reclaim its leadership within ASEAN, ensuring that his actions, whims and ideology will have definite repercussions within the region. However, it will also likely contribute to the growing trend of authoritarianism across Southeast Asia.


Tahlia Beckitt is currently studying International Relations at Curtin University and was the Future of Work delegate at the 2023 G20 Youth Summit in India. A former intern at Castle Asia in Jakarta, Tahlia is highly interested in Australia’s relations with Southeast Asia and the potential for effective and respectful diplomacy and cooperation between Australia and the broader Indo-Pacific. Tahlia has also engaged as a speaker at the 2023 World Food Forum Flagship Event and volunteers for the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership.



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