What is Joko Widodo’s Role in Indonesia’s Election?


More than 100 million people are voting on Wednesday in one of the biggest elections in the world. The contest for the top prize — the presidency of Indonesia — is a three-way race.

But looming large is someone not on the ballot.

That person is Joko Widodo, the incumbent president, who is not allowed to seek a third five-year term and will step down in October. A decade after Mr. Joko presented himself as a down-to-earth reformer and won office, he remains incredibly popular.

Many of his supporters say that he has largely delivered on his promise of putting Indonesia on the path to becoming a rich country in the coming decades, with ambitious infrastructure and welfare projects like the plan to build a new capital city and a universal health system.

At the same time, Mr. Joko has also overseen what critics describe as the regression of civil liberties. He has stripped down the powers of an anti-corruption agency, rammed through a contentious labor law and, more recently, appeared to engineer the placement of one of his sons on the ballot for vice president.

Making matters worse, critics say, is the presidential hopeful he appears to be backing: Prabowo Subianto, a former general who was once a rival of Mr. Joko and who is accused of committing human rights abuses when Indonesia was a dictatorship. Mr. Prabowo, whose running mate is Mr. Joko’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, has been ahead in the polls.

Mr. Joko’s implicit maneuvering has led to soul-searching among many Indonesians.

“People are now asking: ‘How much should we sacrifice for development?’” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer who specializes in Indonesian politics at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in the city of Bandung.

At stake in this election, critics said, is the fate of a young democracy that is now the world’s third largest.

Many Indonesians have feared that a victory by Mr. Prabowo — who led a crackdown on activists in Indonesia and what is now East Timor — could send the country back to its authoritarian past. Many remember the brutal, kleptocratic rule of Mr. Prabowo’s former father-in-law and boss, the dictator Suharto.

“The future is bleak, awfully bleak,” said Butet Kartaredjasa, 64, an artist from the city of Yogyakarta. He said that if Mr. Prabowo won and faced protests, ordinary people would become the victims of any ensuing violence.

The election in Indonesia matters far beyond its borders. The world’s fourth-most-populous country, it is of growing strategic importance to both the United States and China. As one of the world’s top producers of coal, palm oil and nickel, it sits atop the supply chains of many international companies and will have a major bearing on the future of the climate change crisis.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy, and an important outlier in a region where the will of the people is often ignored. Even though democracy is widely considered to be imperfect here, many Indonesians have embraced it as a way of life. Elections in the last three decades have been considered free and fair, and no one wants a return to the days of Suharto.

While Mr. Prabowo had led the three-way race, some polls suggested that he would be forced into a runoff in June, either against Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Jakarta, or Ganjar Pranowo, who ran Central Java. Their platforms do not differ significantly, experts say, but Mr. Prabowo’s strongman bona fides set him apart.

Much of Mr. Joko’s support base shifted to Mr. Prabowo, 72, who has promised to continue Mr. Joko’s policies and tried to rebrand himself as a gemoy, or cuddly, grandfather.

“I support Prabowo now because of Jokowi,” said Rizki Safitri, 36, a voter from Jakarta, referring to Mr. Joko by his nickname. “I want to ensure that Jokowi’s programs that are good are continued and made even better.”

Mr. Joko’s co-opting of Mr. Prabowo started a few years ago, when the president appointed his former election rival as his defense minister.

“For our friends in the U.S., it’s as if Obama suddenly decided to support Trump while still endorsing a Democrat program,” said Andi Widjajanto, who resigned as a strategist for Mr. Joko in October and began working for Mr. Ganjar, one of the other presidential hopefuls.

It is far from clear what Mr. Joko’s influence will be on Indonesian politics after he leaves office or if the ticket of Mr. Prabowo and Mr. Joko’s son, Mr. Gibran, wins. A vice president does not hold much power in Indonesia but can take the top post in the event of a president’s death.

“I don’t expect Prabowo will allow Jokowi to carry too much influence,” said Natalie Sambhi, executive director at Verve Research, which studies the relationship between militaries and societies. “Now, the question becomes, if Prabowo starts to steer Indonesia in a different direction from Jokowi’s vision, what will happen?”

Mr. Gibran’s partnership with Mr. Prabowo has left many of Mr. Joko’s allies baffled. Many could not understand why a man who benefited from direct democracy now has dynastic desires. But they now acknowledge that Mr. Joko had set the ball rolling years ago.

His son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, the mayor of Medan, is running in the North Sumatra governor’s race. In October, Mr. Joko’s youngest child, Kaesang Pangarep, 28, joined the youth-oriented Indonesia Solidarity Party. Within two days, he became its chair.

Mr. Jokowi “used to be the hope of the people; he is now no longer a leader, but a ruler, an official who is building dynastic politics,” said Maria Sumarsih, 71. Ms. Maria’s son was killed by security forces in November 1998 during a student protest at his university.

Last year, Mr. Joko’s brother-in-law cast the deciding vote in the Constitutional Court’s decision to lower the age of vice-presidential candidates, allowing Mr. Gibran, 36, to join the race. An uproar followed, but Mr. Joko doubled down in recent weeks, saying that “a president is permitted to endorse candidates and take sides.” The message to many was unmistakable. By his side was Mr. Prabowo.

His statement fueled another outcry, prompting Mr. Joko to appear on YouTube holding up a poster and pointing to passages from the 2017 General Elections Law stating that presidents are allowed to participate in campaigning. “Don’t interpret it otherwise,” he said.

But legal experts said Mr. Joko was selectively quoting the law, which also states that he must take a leave of absence if he wants to campaign.

Todung Mulya Lubis, who campaigned for Mr. Joko a decade ago and served as Indonesia’s ambassador to Norway, said that “enjoying power with all the attachments to it” was probably something that had changed his former boss.

“He may have his power continue by proxy,” said Mr. Todung, who is advising Mr. Ganjar’s legal team. But he added: “Being a leader of this pluralistic country, he should understand that democracy limits his power.”


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