Democracy in Indonesia – Will Prabowo Subianto Be the Next President?

With a population larger than that of the European Union and a massive, service-based economy, Indonesia is one of the world’s top emerging economies. But it also has a troubled democratic record, with declining scores on civil liberties and political participation in global democracy rankings. As elections approach, Indonesia faces a defining test of its democracy.

The question is whether voters will choose Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander with a dark past, as president. Amid the frenzied speculation about Indonesia’s fate, few observers have taken the time to explain what is at stake, and why it is so difficult to determine if the country is in decline or on the verge of a “turning point.”

A central issue is that Indonesia’s military culture resists the transition from a New Order culture of pervasive political influence to a role that prioritizes national security over politics. Despite formal legislative changes, including reformasi and the removal of presidential authority from the military through the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the military, particularly older officers, continue to perceive themselves as “guardians of the nation” (sekretariat berkemuka) with a cultural identity rooted in territorial structure and a practice known as dual function. This mindset has remained entrenched even as a result of the successful democratic transition.

Since 1998, a series of reforms have helped to transform the Indonesian military into a more traditional security force. But these developments have been largely superficial, whereas the military’s culture, based on a doctrine of dual function, persists. Moreover, the military’s disproportionately large presence in influential non-military positions, as well as its continuing involvement in internal affairs through territorial structures and community service programs, reinforce the perception that military figures are superior to civilian technocrats.

These dynamics have exacerbated the challenges that the country faces in achieving true democratic consolidation. As with many other countries, Indonesia has a complex, multiethnic society that stretches across a vast archipelago that includes hundreds of remote highland communities. Organizing free and fair elections in such a diverse country with a fractious political system is challenging enough, but the military’s involvement has created additional obstacles to the development of robust political institutions. In turn, these weaknesses have contributed to a sense of democratic backsliding and an overall illiberal trend that could have lasting consequences for the country’s future. The answer to this question depends on the extent to which Indonesia can regain its momentum, which will depend on strengthening a civilian bureaucracy, addressing issues of electoral clientelism, and tackling entrenched corruption. Only then can the country build a truly democratic foundation.