OPN Indonesia Elections generic
A street vendor carrying his belonging walks past a banner showing presidential candidates contesting the upcoming general election in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 12, 2024 Image Credit: Reuters

With less than a month to go before the Indonesian general elections on 14 February, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, of the Gerindra party, is leading against his two opponents, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan.

Prabowo, an ex-general, is the son-in-law of the former strongman Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years after the founding father Ahmed Soekarno was overthrown. He twice contested the presidential elections against President Joko Widodo in 2014 and 2019 but lost.

The other two candidates are former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 55, of the Indonesian Democratic of Struggle (PDI-P) — the party of the President, and the former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who earlier served as Widodo’s education minister.

The elections have become somewhat controversial after the Constitutional Court reduced the candidate’s age from 40 to 35 to run for president or vice president if they had previously held an electoral office. This cleared the President’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, who was the mayor of Surakarta.

Days later, Prabowo picked Gibran as his running mate, hoping that the president’s good rating would boost his ticket, which it has.

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Who will contest Prabowo?

The President’s youngest son, Kaesang Pangarep, who was initially slated to run for the mayoral position in Southern Jakarta, is suddenly brought in as the chairman of Widodo-aligned Partai Solidaritas Indonesia.

He is said to be among the candidates for the Jakarta gubernatorial race. The president’s son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, the mayor of Medan, is widely anticipated to run for governor of North Sumatra.

Prabowo is also projecting himself as a Widodo loyalist, whom the public believes will continue with the president’s programs.

Though President Widodo officially proclaims neutrality in the three-way race, most observers believe that since his son is Prabowo’s running mate, he will be sympathetic towards their win instead of supporting his own party PDI-P candidate Ganjar.

Such a prospect has miffed Megawati Soekanroputri, the head of the party and herself a former president.

Indonesia's strategic location

The latest polls indicate that though Prabowo’s ticket popularity is at 45 per cent, there is still 28.7 per cent of undecided voters who can tilt the elections either way. A first-round victory for him is still uncertain. The important question at this stage is, between the other two candidates, who will contest Prabowo in the runoff.

Anies Baswedan has defined himself in opposition to the President as a man of change. Ganjar, the ruling PDI-P candidate, is in the most difficult situation as there seems an impression that Widodo is behind the Prabowo-Gibran ticket. Ganjar is at odds with this impression and thus needs to demonstrate distance from Widodo. So, for him, it is a double-edged sword against him.

Indonesia, the fourth most populous state, the largest in Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s biggest economy, is of considerable importance for both the big powers — China and the US. With a big population and as one of the fastest-growing economies, it is a trade hub for China. It’s over 3,000 islands spread over a vast sea in the region hold a huge strategic value to both powers.

Both China and the US would be watching the progress of the campaign and looking for an edge they can get in the largest regional economy that also has a vast strategic location.

Indonesia is like a big cousin within ASEAN, providing stability in the region. With both China and the US vying to be suitors, Indonesia will want to remain a moderating force in Southeast Asia. Seems that whosoever wins the presidency will continue to be the regional stabiliser and is likely to focus on Indonesia’s long-term economic interests.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.