Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is expected to garner more votes than the two other candidates: former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, however, the election will head to a runoff between the top two candidates in June. Indonesia will also be choosing legislative and executive representatives at all levels of government.
Widodo has served two terms and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third. He has come under sharp criticism from former allies and supporters who say he has been trying to swing the election for Prabowo, a former general once barred from entering the United States because of alleged human rights abuses. Prabowo has vowed to continue Widodo’s trademark policies, including his efforts to build a new capital city and his commitment to stay nonaligned in the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry.
Here’s what you need to know:
Why is Indonesia’s election important?
Indonesia has been one of Asia’s democratic bright spots since the fall of dictator Suharto in the late 1990s, managing peaceful transitions of power even as military juntas and authoritarian leaders have seized power in neighboring countries. This election, however, has alarmed watchdog groups, which say Widodo has been undercutting democratic norms to secure the victory of Prabowo.
Widodo’s critics allege that he pressured the country’s Constitutional Court to change the eligibility requirements for political candidates so that his son, 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, could become Prabowo’s running mate. They also allege that Widodo has been using his personal political influence as well as the power of the executive office to hamper the campaign activities of other candidates. Widodo and Prabowo have dismissed these accusations.
Goenawan Mohamad, one of Indonesia’s most prominent public intellectuals, said Widodo has “destroyed confidence” in the country’s political institutions. Rights activists, including the head of Amnesty International in Indonesia, said this could be the country’s unfairest election since the Suharto era.
Indonesia, the world’s largest majority-Muslim country with 280 million people, plays a vital role in confronting global challenges, from religious extremism to climate change. It is rich in critical minerals such as nickel, used in electric vehicle batteries.
Prabowo, 72, commonly known by his first name, comes from a wealthy and prominent family in Indonesia and was a lieutenant general in the military under Suharto. International human rights organizations say Prabowo carried out rights abuses as a military leader, including ordering the kidnapping of democracy activists and directing the massacre of independence fighters in East Timor and elsewhere. Prabowo was dishonorably discharged from the military in 1998 but never faced criminal prosecution.
Prabowo has tried since the early 2000s to mount a political comeback through the nationalist Gerindra Party, at various points striking alliances with Islamic hard-liners and pro-military groups. He challenged Widodo in national elections twice but has grown closer to the president since being appointed defense minister defense in 2019.
Unlike in previous elections, Prabowo has not played up his military credentials, instead projecting a softer, more grandfatherly image that has resonated with Indonesia’s large youth population, say political scientists. Videos of Prabowo dancing at campaign events have gone viral on social media, prompting debate over the whitewashing of his allegedly brutal past.
What are key issues in the election?
The election is widely seen as a referendum on Widodo’s initiatives, from his efforts to establish an electric-vehicle manufacturing supply chain to his attempts to quell food insecurity by turning swaths of carbon-rich peatland into farms.
Prabowo has promised to continue Widodo’s policies “exactly.” Ganjar, who comes from Widodo’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has said he will largely carry on with the president’s policies but strive to improve them.
Anies, the former Jakarta governor who has been polling in second place, is the only candidate who has rejected some of Widodo’s key initiatives. He has said, for example, that he thinks Widodo’s project to build a new capital could “create new inequalities” and should be reevaluated.
If Prabowo wins, rights activists say they worry civil liberties could be eroded in Indonesia. Defending Prabowo, campaign adviser Budiman Sudjatmiko said that “liberty is not the only agenda for our country.”
When will there be results?
Full, official results will be released after several weeks, but independent polling companies will begin reporting unofficial vote returns on the day of the election. Candidates could declare victory or concede defeat on polling day.
In 2019, Prabowo claimed that the election was rigged against him, filing a complaint that was eventually dismissed by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court. Mass demonstrations and riots are not uncommon after elections in Indonesia.