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Indonesia’s democracy at stake in upcoming presidential election

Simone Galimberti discusses the threat to Indonesian democracy with Prabowo Subianto’s possible election win. He sees a Prabowo-Gibran leadership gradually eroding democratic values, despite strong institutions.

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by Simone Galimberti

Many pundits believe that Indonesian democracy is at stake in case of a victory of Prabowo Subianto, the current minister of defence and his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the first son of President Jokowi who also happens to be the Mayor of Surakarta.

According to all the major polls for the upcoming presidential election, there is a real chance of having the duo leading the most important Southeast Asian nation, a country that has been at the drive of the process of regional cooperation and the world’s largest Muslim country that also happens to be a democracy.

I personally think that the fear is disproportionate, and the overall resilience of the democratic institutions in the country will be tested, but, all in all, they won’t collapse.

At the same time, let me say this unequivocally: a Prabowo’s victory is going to be bad news.

If Prabowo prevails, the ongoing decline of Indonesian democracy will further accelerate, but not because of a sudden authoritarian turn that will unfold the day after his inauguration.

Instead, my thinking goes, there will be thousands of small, incremental steps that will be taken by the new administration that, slowly but incessantly, will weaken the democratic values upon which the post-Suharto Indonesia era was, at least nominally, founded.

Instead of witnessing what might resemble the latest and most brutal punch against democracy, I do believe that Indonesia as a free, liberal political system will ultimately survive the ordeal of a Prabowo’s presidency.

Yohanes Sulaiman, the Executive Editor of the Journal of Global Strategic Studies, wrote an essay for Global Asia supporting this thinking.

In a way, I believe having Gibran in the ticket is a sort of insurance for the future of the whole country.

His father could play not only the role of “behind the scenes” manipulator as predicated by many but it can be but also the figure of guarantor of the nation’s most important treasures.

I am not referring to nickel or any other precious earth mineral that could enable Indonesia to be one of the most important hubs of the global supply chain.

Instead, I am talking about the democratic values and credentials that the country has painstakingly developed throughout the last few decades.

In short, having the president’s son on Prabowo’s ticket is insurance against any lethal degeneration of the already imperfect democracy in Indonesia.

In a way, I do not even foresee a risk of Duterte’s type of presidency, the worst that any emerging liberal democracy can ever experience.

A Prabowo-Gibran administration, so focused on bolstering forms of hyper-nationalism, will probably hurt itself through incompetency and mismanagement, a real possibility that has been foreshowed by the presidential debates so far held.

You can imagine, once the duo was in power, a myriad of missteps that would soon damage and erode whatever approval rate had brought them to victory.

A sloppy management of the national economy, together with a weakened upholding of the rule of law, would, probably sooner than later, fester discontent among the general population.

Protests might unfold, hampering the most treasured legacy of President Jokowi’s two terms in power: a friendly economic environment aimed at attracting billions of dollars of foreign investments.

In short, a Prabowo presidency won’t imply a collapse of the state of law, and the key constitutional bodies will continue to function, even if they end up being weaker institutions.

Yet, considering the risks embedded in this hypothetical scenario, should the Indonesian people take such a gamble and put Prabowo in the Merdeka Palace?

Should instead such possibility be avoided at any cost and if so, how could this happen when there are three different tickets contending for the presidency?

It is granted that, in case of a runoff, when either Ganjar or Anies, the other two contenders, are at the helm of the nation, the odds might flip and go against Prabowo.

There have already been some rumours about an alliance of the two contenders in case the elections go for a second ballot that is scheduled in June.

But what if Prabowo will win, even by a tiny margin, the presidency in the first round?

Indonesia is a very important nation in the whole Asia Pacific and in the world, and self-inflicting damages made by an unfit president and an immature vice-president should be avoided at any cost.

This is because only the citizens of the country would pay the consequences of this scenario.

That’s why the only way to avoid any unnecessary risks of a Prabowo’s presidency is to do whatever it can can be done to limit the possibility of his victory in the first run.

Now, the electors, the people of Indonesia, have one too many options to elect the next president, and this is an unnecessary luxury.

How can this conundrum be solved?

The solution is simple, and everyone knows it.

Either Ganjar or Anies should step aside and vow to support each other, building a formidable coalition to beat off any chance of a Prabowo’s victory.

Considering the fact that Ganjar is the official candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), that, almost comically is or, better to say, used to be the party of President Jokowi, it could make more sense for Anies to back down and endorse Ganjar.

Also, Anies, despite a more than decent run as governor of Jakarta during the pandemic and his image as a competent and efficient politician, still has a troubling episode in his past from which he still shadows him.

As the Jakarta Post explains, Anies has been accused of “fueling a wave of Islamic zealotry while on the campaign trail to defeat Ahok, a minority Chinese Christian”.

Unfortunately, there is almost zero chance that either Ganjar or Anies will prioritize the long-term interest of the country and do the right thing: ensure that Prabowo will be defeated for a third a final time in what are the most consequential elections in the Indonesian’s modern history.

A Prabowo’s loss will also have deeper implications for the political future of President Jokowi.

The fact that his and his family’s political prospects are going to be shattered, at least for a long while, would be an extremely positive development for Indonesia and the whole region.

It will be, indeed, a victory for democracy in the whole Asia Pacific, a real possibility of doing away with political dynasties and political cartels.

Optimistically speaking, probably a bit naïvely, I would say that this could be the beginning of a full cleaning, the retirement of an old style of doing politics in Indonesia, a clean-up that should also bring in a real change in the leadership of the PDI-P.

But first things first, the Indonesians should be focused on getting rid of the real chance of a Prabowo-Gibran administration.

The latest survey by The Economist still gives Prabowo a wide margin of victory even if his two rivals are gaining some numbers.

Ganjar and Anies should both check their egos and do their part.

They must negotiate a compromise, even if, for one of them, it will be very painful to digest.

The author writes about democracy, human rights and regional integration in the Asia Pacific.

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