According to unofficial figures, voters from Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, decided on February 14 who will likely replace term-limited President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo: controversial Defence Minister and former general Prabowo Subianto. 

  • Exit polls, quick counts, and media predictions showed that Prabowo Subianto will win far more than 50% of the votes, eliminating the need for a run-off in June.
  • If confirmed, the victory will defy previous predictions that Prabowo would need two rounds to win the presidency, but it is unsurprising given his support from state agencies.
  • Security risks could heighten in the coming days, with student and pro-democracy groups likely to protest the Prabowo-Jokowi collaboration, accusing it of tactics to prevent a run-off. 
  • While these protests will likely fizzle out with little damage done, they will serve as a reminder that the oligarchic climate that ended only 25 years ago could return to Indonesia. 

Presidential effect 

It did not take long for Indonesia to find out which candidate most certainly won the 14 February race to replace current president Jokowi, who, despite his popularity, cannot run for a third term. Before sunset on polling day, opinion polls and media outlets agreed that Prabowo had muscled out his two rivals with margins not seen in pre-election surveys. Most had earlier predicted that Prabowo would come short of winning a majority, requiring a run-off contest with the runner-up in June. Even forecasts of him winning outright never had him getting more than 52% of the votes. This now looks conservative. Nobody expected that the former general who lost twice in previous presidential elections would win nearly 60% of the votes in a three-way race. By nightfall, Prabowo was already promising that he would be a president for all Indonesians, although the official results will only be announced next month. 

Prabowo is the candidate favoured by the current president and his victory is a testament to the “Jokowi effect” – the pull that the down-to-earth president has over the Indonesian masses. Jokowi’s charisma brought him victory in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections and ensured that his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), secured the most seats in national parliament. However, Jokowi and PDI-P’s longtime chief Megawati Sukarnoputri fell out over the party’s 2024 presidential nominee, with the latter championing her daughter while Jokowi backed then Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo. By the time Megawati came around in March 2023, Jokowi was already shifting his favour towards former rival Prabowo, who had been courting Jokowi’s son, Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming, as his running mate. 

Usman’s your uncle 

The Prabowo-Gibran ticket not only meant a betrayal by Jokowi and Gibran of their party and friend Pranowo; it also required amending the election law that requires presidential and vice-presidential candidates to be at least 40 years old. Gibran, who was 36 at the time of his nomination, was aided by a legal challenge. The challenge – brought by a student who was speculated to have been paid for his action – argued that anyone who has governed a region should be exempt from age limits.  

Gibran’s uncle, Anwar Usman, then head judge of the Constitutional Court, together with other judges, ruled to accept the argument, allowing Gibran to be Prabowo’s running mate ‒ and therefore, vice-presidential candidate ‒ just a week before registration for the presidential election closed in October 2023. Usman was demoted by the court’s supervising body afterwards, but the ruling stood, and the election commission accepted it without waiting for official parliamentary amendment.

From November, Prabowo and Gibran ran an effective campaign that buried the former general’s troubling past, including his dismissal from the military over human rights allegations in 1998 during the last days in power of authoritarian president Suharto – Prabowo’s father-in-law at the time. 

Targeting voters under 40, the largest voting bloc, the campaign used cartoon avatars and a re-branded image of Prabowo as an endearing, worldly, polyglot grandfather who likes to dance. This contrasts with Prabowo’s previous portrayals as commander-in-chief or saviour of the Muslim masses that had put off neutral swing voters. These tactics worked effectively on social media platforms used by young voters with no memory of Prabowo’s history.  

At the same time, Jokowi supporters migrated from Pranowo to Prabowo. From polling at around 35% in October, Prabowo’s numbers passed 40% by January. However, the Jokowi-Prabowo alliance was aiming higher: victory in one round of voting. A long election season would have complicated Jokowi’s efforts to continue growing the economy. The apparent landslide on 14 February suggests the alliance hit their mark.   

Danger ahead 

In the lead up to the election, intimidation by officials, policemen and soldiers  against rival campaigns began to emerge, especially against former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, whose pro-change message overshadowed Pranowo’s uninspiring run. Most of these threatening actions were subtle enough to avoid sparking lawsuits, but the message was clear. Such pressure was also levelled at university heads whose students were protesting the controversial court ruling and other efforts by the Prabowo camp perceived to be unethical. Together, these moves resembled the actions of state agencies during the oligarchic Suharto era that ended just over decades ago, but with a lighter touch.  

Reports by independent media about such actions were ignored by voters who were more drawn to the dances, concerts and overall party atmosphere associated with the Prabowo campaign. By early February 2024, some pollsters were predicting that Prabowo would win a majority but shied away from pointing to the shadowy drivers behind the final push until the release of Dirty Vote, a documentary on social media that purported to reveal the systematic use of state agencies to ensure a short election season. By that point it was too late for any press to hold back the Prabowo surge. 

With several weeks to go before the official announcement of election results, pro-democracy activists, student groups and aggrieved parties will likely launch protests in several Indonesian cities to accuse the Prabowo-Jokowi alliance of using all means necessary to ensure there would be no run-off. State agencies will deny there was any direction from the top, and they will not be penalised because the alleged tactics would be hard to fault in court. Security risks will spike as some clashes will occur. Protesting students will also face staunch Prabowo supporters of the same age who believe in his ability to make Indonesia a world power. Indeed, this rhetoric comes at an opportune time, when Indonesians are feeling more confident about their global position due to the economic growth that was only slightly interrupted by the pandemic. The student movement will likely fizzle out and fail to follow in the footsteps of the 1998 revolt that ousted Suharto. 

The danger for businesses Is that Indonesia under Prabowo could return to the oligarchic ways seen during the Suharto era, when power was concentrated in the hands of the few and state agencies were used to preserve the status quo. Stability for businesses operating in the country might be possible, but only if they are acquainted with the right people, if they can recognise the signs of who is in control, and if they know which messages to project.  

But those who dare cross the line or speak against the establishment and its policies will find themselves in trouble. It is unlikely that this trouble will take a physical form, as it did during the Suharto years, considering videos and images of events can spread on social media in seconds. Challenges for businesses will likely come through legal procedures and institutions. The court, the election commission, and the security forces helped Prabowo win a majority of the vote without breaking the law – but left an unethical aftertaste.

This article is based on a research note originally published in Seerist. Find out more about how Seerist’s adaptive artificial intelligence combined with localised geopolitical risk expertise can help you identify, monitor, and mitigate risks. 

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