Podcast #111: Indonesia goes to the polls


Ben is joined by Erin Cook from Dari Mulut ke Mulut to discuss next week’s national election in Indonesia. We discuss the three candidates, the role of the outgoing president Jokowi in the race, the electoral system and the role of parties in Indonesia’s democracy.

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The transcript is below the fold.

Ben: Welcome to the Tally Room podcast, I’m Ben Raue. We’re kicking off 2024 by going overseas to preview next week’s national elections in Indonesia.

Voters in Indonesia will cast their votes on February 14 in the first round of the presidential election, and to elect the national parliament and regional legislatures.

As we speak it looks likely that a politician with a long history of trying for the presidency may be on the verge of finally winning that role.

My guest today is Erin Cook. Erin is an Australian journalist based in Southeast Asia covering politics across the region and she curates the Dari Mulut ke Mulut newsletter. Hello, Erin.

Erin: Hi, how are you going?

Ben: Thanks for coming back on and we did a podcast last year about the Thai election, which you can check out if you go back and look through the archive.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and has been holding direct presidential elections since 2004, not long after the country democratised in the late 1990s.

In that time, they’ve had two strong presidents who have each served two five-year terms: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from 2004 until 2014, and Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, since 2014.

Jokowi’s term is coming to an end this year, but it looks like his main rival at the 2014 and 2019 elections, Prabowo Subianto, is now the front runner with Jokowi’s help.

This might seem surprising to someone who maybe last paid attention to Indonesian politics during the last election in 2019.

Erin, what’s changed between these two men in the last five years?

Erin: It’s surprising for people that don’t pay close attention to Indonesia. But it’s also surprising to people in Indonesia, it’s a bit of a shock what happened here.

So in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 election, there was huge demonstrations in Jakarta and elsewhere in the country, about Prabowo Subianto’s loss. These were quite deadly, I think five or six people died in Jakarta, and some students elsewhere across the country were killed in clashes as well.

So it was a very violent period that was quickly sort of brought under wraps. Jokowi has traditionally been really good at opening up sort of the broad tent and getting people in. But this time, that meant bringing Probowo Subianto in as defence minister, and that really strengthen their relationship and then completely neutralised opposition.

And then over those four or five years since then, they’ve just become better and better friends really. And Jokowi has done a lot in moderating Probowi’s reputation, which of course is severely influenced by very serious, very credible allegations of human rights abuses since the 1980s in the military.

Ben: There’s a lot to talk about. The three candidates who are running, the party structure, it’s probably worth talking a little bit before we get into who’s running about the way that those kind of coalitions work in Indonesian politics.

Because there’s quite a few parties, and if I’m not wrong, Jokowi, when he was elected in 2014, was part of, I believe he’s a member of PDI-P, which is the party led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is the former president and the daughter of the country’s first president.

And he was elected with the endorsement of that party, but it’s not simply a matter of him being a member of that party. It’s a lot more complicated than that. And his relationship with that party isn’t as simple as that might sound.

Erin: No, and that’s been a long problem for Jokowi in the immediate aftermath of him winning in 2014. For about two or three years into that first term, he was kind of followed with persistent rumours or even criticisms that he was very much Megawati’s puppet. That Jokowi was not a president that stood on his own, that Indonesia effectively had round two of Megawati as president.

There was an effort on his behalf to kind of dispel that sort of thing, be a bit more evidently independent from the party, which was largely successful for the next seven, eight years, even during the 2019 election.

Megawati is immensely powerful still, even though she never won an election outright as president. She is an immensely powerful woman in Indonesia. And in the 2019 election, Jokowi did a fairly decent job of balancing that sort of relationship with her and with the party.

But in successive years, it split dramatically. Jokowi was very much on the thought that, you know, I’m the President, I’ve been extraordinarily successful, still very, very popular. Why do I need to keep paying allegiances to Megawati forever?

So as he became increasingly independent. PDI-P: there was a division, I guess, a schism within the party of the pro-Jokowi people and the pro-Megawati people.

When PDI-P finally nominated Ganjar Pranowo, the central Java governor, as it’s presidential candidate, Jokowi would not come out and say that he was supporting Ganjar for president, even though the two of them beyond being party mates have known each other for a long, long time.

They’re, you know, both lawmakers from Java, they know each other. And instead, Jokowi supported Prabowo, of course. And that has led to a division that will not be healed. And it leads to a lot of questions about Jokowi’s post-presidential career, as well as what PDI-P does now. Whether it’s going to be able to firm itself up without the immensely popular Jokowi, or if PDI-P may be in trouble in the years ahead.

Ben: I was listening to something else talking about Ganjar Pranowo, who is the PDI-P candidate, kind of suggesting that he’d been Jokowi’s candidate, but then in the process of… Jokowi doesn’t control the internal endorsement and mechanisms of PDI-P. And in order to get that endorsement, he kind of needed to get a bit closer to Megawati. And that maybe alienated Jokowi.

I don’t know how much that’s on the public record, or how much that’s speculation. But as he moved towards Megawati, to get the party nomination, he probably then lost something that was crucial for him in terms of potentially winning after he got the nomination.

Erin: I think it’s a really, really interesting question. And I don’t think you know, the world will ever know. But finding out what happens specifically between these guys would be really, really interesting. This time last year, Jokowi was talking about, you know, “I stand by a gray haired man” and all sorts of things, which could only be Ganjar. So it’s really interesting to see what’s happened in the year since.

Ben: And now let’s talk briefly about… we say Jokowi’s supporting Probowo, but I don’t believe he’s come out explicitly and said, “I endorse this guy”. I don’t think he’s at the rallies. It’s more subtle than that.

Can we talk about Gibran, who is Jokowi’s older son, he’s the mayor of Solo, which is the city that Jokowi used to be mayor of himself, I believe. And he has ended up becoming Prabowo’s running mate after a controversial process where… he’s about my age. He’s under 40. And the Indonesian constitution, I believe, says that you must be 40 to run for president or vice president. But that hasn’t stood in his way.

Erin: No. Gosh, this got very messy very quickly. And then everybody seemed to have moved on a little bit.

So, end of last year, supporters of Gibran Rakabuming Raka took it to the Constitutional Court and they said, you know, he’s under 40. But he is obviously experienced. He’s the mayor. Things are looking pretty good. Is there any way that there would be a constitutional exception to this? The court eventually rules yes. If you’re between 35 and 40, but with political experience, okay, you can come on in.

But the head of the Constitutional Court at this time, was Anwar Usman, who is Gibran’s uncle, and President Jokowi’s brother-in-law. So that really kicks things off. A lot of criticism, as you can imagine, although I think the ruling itself isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s just about who did it and who for that made it so controversial.

And yeah, Gibran, he’s really struggling with the nepo baby sort of accusation, I guess. Being the mayor of Solo is certainly not an easy gig. But even getting that one to begin with was very much seen as, you know, your dad’s shadow, your dad’s put you up to it. So I’m curious to see what happens with him in the years ahead if he does end up becoming vice president because I’m not sure there’s a huge amount of confidence in his political abilities.

Ben: Let’s talk about dynasties, about family connections. You know, it’s not unique to Southeast Asia but does ha.ppen a lot there. Admittedly, you know, there has been politicians in Australia who were the children of other politicians.

But you know, Southeast Asia and South Asia has the history of, you know, a lot of these countries, their first female leader was the daughter of the wartime Prime Minister, President kind of figure. I think that story is played out like four or five times over the region, including Megawati, Sukarnoputri. Prabowo is the former son in law of Suharto, obviously Gibran and Jokowi. And then we see this happening in countries like the Philippines and, you know, family connection has been big in Thailand too.

What role is that playing in Indonesian politics? And maybe is that also a broader thing beyond the presidential level as well?

Erin: When we talk about dynasties, we also have to talk about Kaesang, who’s the other son of President Jokowi. So he’s also running for I think it’s mayor of Depok, which is one of the satellite cities of Jakarta.

And he’s running for that with Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, which is supposed to be sort of like the millennial social democracy party, but it has just become a vehicle for Kaesang.

So I think we’ve seen plenty of dynasties in Indonesia, but few so transparently built in what we’ve seen this time around. We’ve got two of Jokowi’s sons plus his son-in-law up in North Sumatra. So that’s, yeah, a very transparent way of doing things.

Prabowo Subianto, is a two-time nepo baby as well. His father was an incredibly influential finance minister and economist within the Sukarno and then the Suharto governments. There’s a long legacy of this, it seems to be quite contained, maybe half a dozen or so families. Whereas in the Philippines, that seems to be you know, everybody. So I think that’s interesting. I don’t know if if it’s going to work long term. I can’t imagine any politician, let alone one of the younger fellows repeating Jokowi’s success?

Ben: Because Jokowi himself, he wasn’t someone who was from a political family, right? Like he’s come from relatively modest background, I believe, like he’s, you know, he’s not the child of a senior politician?

Erin: No, he’s very much an outlier, in that he wasn’t from a political family, or from the military either, which is kind of the one of two options for Indonesian politicians. He was just a normal fella who became a businessman and worked his way up. I don’t know if that maybe is a motivation for him to be building his own dynasty or what but the blatantness of it is kind of insulting, I think.

Ben: At the presidential level, there is a two-round system. If a candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round, they win. If not, there’s going to be a runoff in June. Interestingly, I don’t know how long we’ve had that runoff system in Indonesia. But the previous four direct elections all turned into two people up against each other, whereas this one, you know, there’s a clear front runner, but there are three credible candidates running in this election. So in the past, even if they’d had a runoff system, there wasn’t enough candidates for it to come into play.

Erin: Yep, no, that’s true. Well, I’ve had conversations about this with friends recently, because all of these sorts of regular features of presidential campaigns in Indonesia. You know, the debates or the big end of campaign finale events, nobody’s too sure what happens if it does go to a runoff, which is totally plausible. No one’s sure if there’s going to be another round of debates, another huge stadium packed event. Yeah, it’s been on the books for a long time. But in practice, this is the first time.

Ben: I have to assume there would be. Like, the campaign won’t stop, right? There’ll be one less candidate. And the campaign will continue. So I have to assume that there’ll be more bigger events, and it’ll cost more money and more debates and stuff.

Erin: So kind of the vibe is that we’re likely to see Probowo get through to a second round. And likely Anies, but nobody’s too sure. So then we’ll then have, like a fairly bizarre coalition, come up between those two candidates. And I think they’ll need to have these huge sort of events.

Ben: You mean the two candidates who aren’t Prabowo? You think it’s likely that whichever one of them gets knocked out, will endorse the other one?

Erin: Yeah, there’s been sort of more and more reporting over the last couple of weeks, especially as it becomes clear that Anies is getting ahead of Ganjar, that we should see a combo of PDI-P at least backing Anies, or vice versa if it turns out that way.

Ben: But I’ll just touch briefly on, as well, with the legislature. So their elections are happening in February as well. It’s a proportional system. There’s a bit of deviation in terms of number of seats per region, but largely it’s like, large multi-member electorates with, I believe, open list voting system. So that’ll be, it’s reasonably proportional. You get a parliament that has a bunch of parties in it. That’s probably about all we need to go into the complexities of the legislature.

Erin: That’s going to be an interesting one to watch. I think, you know, it’s very visual, but nobody’s talking about these sorts of levels of races. But PDI-P has been the dominant party in the House for at least as long as I can remember. And I’m not sure that that’s going to be the case after next week. I’m really curious to see what happens there because I’m not sure what the run-on effects for such an unpopular campaign for Ganjar is going to look like for the party as a whole.

Ben: You mentioned a bit of the state of the polling, it looks like Ganjar seems to be falling to third but Prabowo, he’s in the 40s, right? Like, it wouldn’t be a total shock if you managed to squeeze over 50% and win in the first round, but it seems more likely now that he’ll be the leading candidate but not get a majority.

Erin: I think that’s exactly right. I think if he does squeak by in the first round, it would be amazing, but not a surprise. But I think it’s far more likely to go to a runoff in which case it’d be him versus one of the other two candidates. And at that point, I don’t know anybody who’d be confident to say what will happen next.

Ben: And as we said, It’s unprecedented because there hasn’t been a runoff before in Indonesia. So let’s go through the three candidates. We’ve touched on them a little bit.

Prabowo Subianto, the front runner, you know, he’s run for president twice before he was the vice presidential candidate in 2009 for Megawati. Which is interesting considering how they’re very much on opposite sides now. What’s his story?

Erin: He’s an interesting man, I think. He’s one of these sort of characters that you get in Indonesian politics after 1998. Sort of these figures that have stuck around for a quarter of a century and have come to dominate Indonesian politics. He is now the defense minister under Jokowi.

Before that, he was a politician, very, very high up in the army, and has a lot of credible allegations about human rights abuses dating back to Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and the 1998 student movement against Suharto.

It’s interesting to see how much this history was used against him in 2014 and 2019. By PDI-P and the Jokowi camp. Those concerns Jokowi has clearly moved on from and generationally younger Indonesians are less concerned or less aware of these allegations.

According to the polling, Prabowo’s biggest support is amongst millennial and Gen Z Indonesians, but still remains quite unpopular with the older generations. So I think we’re seeing a very transformative moment, we’re moving on completely from post-Reformasi era into something else entirely. And these sorts of stories, I guess, are being forgotten or moved on from.

Anies Baswedan. He’s a very interesting fella he is… everybody’s connected to Jokowi in some way in this one. So he was at one stage Jokowi’s Education Minister during the first Jokowi term.

He got the boot then went on to run for governor of Jakarta in 2017. Things got very, very messy, very dark during that stage. He ended up winning, but that was off the back of, I think what we’re effectively, I think it’s fair to say, race riots. It was very much in response to then-governor, Ahok, with a Christian and Chinese background.

Anies’ campaign was very much of the hardcore Islamist types, which has made it very difficult for him in the presidential election, because there are a lot of people who will not forgive him for that. I think Anies is either viewed as quite politically savvy and willing to do what needs to be done to win. Or a man who’s trying to hide certain anti-Chinese, anti-Christian proclivities. I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle there, but he’s going to have a hell of a time winning over a lot of Chinese grandmas in Jakarta.

Ben: Now Ganjar, we’ve touched on him already, the PDI-P candidate who seems to be falling out of favour now, and seems to be the favourite to be knocked out in the first round. What’s his go?

Erin: I was so surprised to see what has happened to Ganjar here. I feel like if we had this conversation this time last year, he would have been the front-runner easy. It would have been almost a sure thing.

He seems like a fairly decent candidate, all things considered. He’s governor of Central Java, which is an enormous province that has done great things in development over the last few years. But he just has not seem to have campaigned much. You know, he pops up but he’s not…I don’t know there’s something that is stopping him from connecting with voters. And I don’t know what it is.

There’s…feels like a personality thing that he’s just not getting through the way Prabowo or Anies have. And it might not help that PDI-P, which is backing him, does seem at times more interested in attacking Jokowi, or Jokowi’s son Gibran, rather than focusing on Ganjar and on the campaign, but, yeah, it just isn’t working for him.

Ben: Are there major policy issues that distinguish these candidates? Because it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a sense of being able to identify them as being from the left or the right or that kind of thing. But are there big, big ideological or even identity differences that you can identify between them?

Erin: Not so much. No, I think the larger differences become almost existential. It’s do you want Prabowo and Gibran for, depending on who you are, for other candidate pair that will continue Jokowi’s legacy and continue all of his programs, which do remain remarkably popular. So for the team, that’s a winner. Or if you’re Anies and Ganjar arguing against Prabowo, do you want to vote for him and go back to the bad old days where the president decides everything, and we get dynasties?

These are not, you know, policy differences. They’re more at the core of what you want an Indonesia to be. And if those are your only options, I think that cuts out a lot of people from what they really need. You know, people just want to go to school and eat.

Ben: Is there much in the way of geographical trends about where particular candidates get their support, like particular parts of Indonesia, urban/rural, different islands, that kind of thing?

Erin: Yeah, I think that’ll be an interesting one to watch. Because traditionally, eastern Indonesia goes PDI-P, while Sumatra and Java are the two largest islands, of course, and they tend to go…you know, these are provinces in Sumatra especially, that picked Prabowo in 2014-2019, who will presumably do so again, next week.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in eastern Indonesia, where PDI-P usually has dominated in the past. I think the party can’t count on that anymore. There’s been, you know, just purely anecdotal, but immensely popular campaign events throughout these regions for the last year from the Prabowo camp. So they’ve certainly been working out there. Whether that translates to votes, and threatens PDI-P strongholds will be really interesting to see.

Ben: What does this campaign say about the state of Indonesian democracy now? Like it’s been a quarter of a century since the end of the Suharto regime, you know, this is their fifth direct presidential election.

Prabowo, coming back, after all this history, maybe isn’t an encouraging sign. But in the end, it does seem like quite a robust political system. Does it feel like it’s a democracy that’s in a healthy state?

Erin: I think that’s an interesting question, because I agree with you, it does feel robust. And that’s a good thing. I have been reading and listening a lot to Indonesian academics, who have been, particularly in the last week, have been really sounding the alarm over the state of things.

President Jokowi is getting razzed quite a bit. He’s technically and legally allowed to be campaigning, but it’s not a good…doesn’t feel good to watch the President be actively involved to this extent. And a lot of the leading academics and analysts in Indonesia have come out in the last week and said, you know, this is completely unacceptable. This is not the democracy we fought for. And it’s not the democracy we want, we want to see a free and fair, but that should include the president keeping his hands off a little bit.

I think that’s a tough one. They’re certainly not wrong. But Jokowi is so popular that I’m not sure that’s going to make much of an impact. Indonesians are used to seeing lawmakers show up with, you know, a few gifts before the vote. So is there much of a difference between your local candidate doing that and then the President doing it?

Ben: It’s interesting, because I think in particularly in the context of President Trump in America, there was a lot of talk about norm breaking and that different democracies have different norms. But there’s something about that there’s a particular expectations about how you behave. And if you violate that, it can be seen as inappropriate.

But then also like, a lot of Western countries, it would be trivial and unremarkable for the leader of the country to campaign in an election, even where they’re not standing in, obviously, in Australian democracy, the Prime Minister, you know, if you’re not running for election, you quit before the election.

But even in America, you know, President Obama, strongly campaigned for the Democrats who’ve run since he stepped down right. There was nothing remarkable about that. And I’m sure Bush would have done the same if anyone wanted him to be out there campaigning.

But it’s interesting that in Indonesia is seen as inappropriate. It’s almost like the power that Jokowi has is so much, he’s so popular, that it seems like an inappropriate violation of norms for him to be kind of exercising that power.

Erin: I think there’s an element of like sort of a mouse that sank the boat with this latest flare up, the Gibran Constitutional Court thing cannot be underplayed. I think a lot of people see that as sort of a hallmark of Indonesian democracy in 25 years that will be looked back on as a moment.

And I think what we’re seeing now is just further evidence to people who believe this that something’s gone wrong here and it’s not a direction they want the country to be heading in.

But you’re right, it is interesting that it works so differently in the country by country context. And we talked about because people get confused about this. And I don’t know, if most of your listeners are Australian, I always find this really interesting, just like the actual process of voting days really interesting.

Because it’s…I’ve had to explain to so many people that polls close at 1pm, and polls are tiny, so we should have a clear idea of the direction probably about 5pm, local time, Western Indonesia time. And I think that’s really exciting. We don’t have to stay up too late, Australia.

Ben: All right. Cool. That’s really interesting to know. So polls close at one o’clock and polling booths tend to be very small. So the counting will happen quickly. I think Australians sometimes underestimate how much more quickly you can count election results when you don’t use preferences and when people just have a single vote that they use.

So that’s about it for this episode of the Tally Room podcast. Thank you, Erin, for joining me.

Erin: Thank you so much for having me. I love talking about this.

Ben: If you’re interested in politics in Southeast Asia, I would also recommend signing up for Erin’s newsletter, Dari Mulut ke Mulut. I’m a paid subscriber. So consider signing up. It’s great.

I’ll be doing another episode about Indonesia once the results are in which we’ll be putting out a little bit over a week after this episode goes out. So keep an eye out for that.

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  1. I would love to know why the media and commentators are so confident that Prabowo Subianto will be the next president. He lost twice. What makes them think he will make it 3rd time lucky? He needs to win over people he lost in the previous 2 elections.

    Polls don’t decide elections, voters do. And polls tend to be less accurate in some countries. I predict a 2nd round.

  2. Why would he support his conservative rival? Joko is a well known Centre-Left politician. Prabowo is Right-wing (His party). Why wouldn’t Joko support his own party which is politically the same as he is? I Thought he was a progressive (In Indonesian standards)


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