Indonesia election 2024: who are the 3 candidates vying to lead the world’s third largest democracy?

If Prabowo wins the presidency on Wednesday, it will be the culmination of a military and political career spent fighting to influence the future of his country. After graduating from the Indonesian Military Academy in 1970, Prabowo served in the Special Forces (Kopassus) before being tapped to lead the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) in 1998.

Indonesia’s Prabowo takes flak for ‘slow brains’ remark in final election debate

That same year also saw the economic and political crisis that led Prabowo’s father-in-law at the time, President Suharto, to resign after 32 years of dictatorship. Around the time of the riots that precipitated Suharto’s ouster, troops under Prabowo’s command kidnapped and tortured at least nine democracy activists. Prabowo acknowledged responsibility for the kidnappings and was dishonourably discharged from the military.

He was also banned from the United States for decades due to alleged human rights abuses, including military crimes during the occupation of East Timor, but the ban was lifted in 2020 after Widodo named him defence minister.

After the end of his military career, Prabowo focused on politics, forming the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) party in 2008. In 2009, he ran as the vice-presidential candidate to Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri, but they were defeated by incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (right) and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, greet supporters during their campaign rally in Jakartaon February 10. Photo: AP
During his 2014 and 2019 presidential campaigns against Widodo, Prabowo presented himself as a military man through fiery speeches full of nationalist rhetoric. But he has taken a very different approach in the run-up to this election, with his campaign team casting him as something more akin to a cuddly grandpa, with viral TikTok videos showing off his awkward dance moves helping him make significant inroads with the country’s young voters.
But Prabowo’s savviest move may have been cementing his alliance with Widodo by picking the president’s son Gibran, the 36-year-old mayor of Surakarta, as his running mate. Although Gibran’s candidacy is seen by many as controversial, with many accusing the president of nepotism and abusing his power to pave the way for his son’s candidacy, in the minds of voters it signalled that Prabowo’s administration would largely see a continuation of Widodo’s highly popular agenda, which has focused on infrastructure and economic growth.


Indonesia’s 2024 election: will Indonesia vote in a political dynasty?

Indonesia’s 2024 election: will Indonesia vote in a political dynasty?

The populist: Ganjar Pranowo

With the backing of the ruling (PDI-P), Ganjar Pranowo was tipped early on to be the man to beat in this week’s election. But President Widodo’s decision to break from his party and tacitly throw his support behind Prabowo and his son has led to Ganjar languishing in the polls. However, a growing backlash against Widodo’s alleged machinations may give Ganjar the late boost needed to force a run-off.

In many ways, Ganjar cuts a similar figure to Widodo. Neither one comes from the military or one of the elite political families that dominate so many of Indonesia’s seats of power. Like Widodo, he is known for being a man of the people, with an easy-going manner and a propensity for making informal, impromptu visits to talk to his constituents.

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After serving in the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) for a decade, Ganjar won the governorship of Central Java in 2013 on a platform focused on policies aimed at helping the poor, such as financing loan reform that helped drive down interest rates on microloans. He is also known for his anti-corruption efforts, with his commitment to cracking down on bribery leading to the Corruption Eradication Commission awarding the Central Java government an award in 2015.

Ganjar’s running mate is Mahfud MD, who recently resigned as coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs over his disagreement with President Widodo taking sides in the presidential election. He is a respected legal scholar who has also served in a number of senior government roles, including head of the Constitutional Court and minister of law and human rights under previous administrations.

Even before Widodo’s son entered the race, Ganjar faced scandals that seemed to diminish his electoral prospects. One of those was his vocal opposition to the Israeli team’s participation in the Under-20 World Cup that had been scheduled to take place in Indonesia last year. Fifa eventually removed Indonesia as host for the event over the Israel issue, and Ganjar faced the brunt of anger from football fans who were upset that not just at losing the event but also that Indonesia’s own U20 squad would no longer be allowed to participate.
Ganjar Pranowo (left), presidential candidate of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and his running mate Mahfud MD at their final campaign rally in Semarang on February 10. Photo: Reuters
But there’s no doubt that it was losing the support of Widodo, who just a few months ago described Ganjar as “brave, gutsy”, that has led to Ganjar’s poor poll numbers, hovering just below the 20 per cent mark in many recent polls.
Still, there are many who have become increasingly disappointed by the president’s seemingly anti-democratic efforts to get his son into the vice presidency and, among that segment, Ganjar is the preferred candidate. One notable example of this would be Slank, Indonesia’s most famous rock band, whose members were previously staunch supporters of Widodo but have recently started backing Ganjar, lending their star presence to the candidate’s late campaign events.

However, the polls indicate that not even rock stars could elevate Ganjar into first place at this point. His only realistic hope is that he and his other rival, Anies Baswedan, are able to hold Prabowo under 50 per cent and force a run-off.

Will Indonesia’s Anies and Ganjar team up to deny Prabowo an outright poll win?

The opposition: Anies Baswedan

While both Prabowo and Ganjar essentially promise to deliver continuations of Widodo’s popular policy agenda, Anies Baswedan has sought to reach voters looking for a change from the status quo with promises to reverse some of the president’s more controversial policies. He is running as an independent candidate backed by the Coalition of Change for Unity, a group made up of three political parties: NasDem, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and the Democratic Party.

Anies first made a name for himself as an academic, becoming the youngest rector in Indonesia at 38 years old when he was tapped to lead Paramadina University. He gained national recognition soon after by developing the successful Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia Teaching) programme that sends university graduates to teach at underserved schools across the archipelago.

Presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Anies Baswedan (left) and Muhaimin Iskandar, greet their supporters at the Jakarta International Stadium in Jakarta on February 10. Photo: AFP

He eventually left academia to pursue a career in politics. In 2014, he joined Widodo’s first presidential campaign as an official spokesperson and, after their win, he was named minister of education and culture, serving for two years before being replaced – allegedly for not fulfilling Widodo’s policy priorities.

In 2017, he entered the national spotlight by joining the race to become the governor of Jakarta, challenging the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok. Before Widodo won the presidency, Ahok had been his vice governor and was well regarded as a tough but progressive leader. However, after the ethnic-Chinese Christian politician was accused of blasphemy for referencing the Koran in one of his campaign speeches, Anies seized on the line of attack and aligned himself with hardline Islamists who held massive rallies denouncing Ahok. Anies won the governorship, and Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy and jailed for nearly two years.

Could Indonesian conservative Anies Baswedan be nation’s next president?

Anies continues to be aligned with conservative Islamic political factions, who have often played the role of the opposition during Widodo’s decade in office. His running mate Muhaimin Iskandar, also known as Cak Imin, is the chairman of the Islam-based National Awakening Party (PKB).

During this presidential campaign, Anies has distinguished himself with vocal opposition to some of Widodo’s policies, including the president’s signature plan to build a new capital city, Nusantara, located in eastern Borneo. Anies has argued that the US$35 billion project would only exacerbate the country’s inequalities and that the money would be better spent elsewhere. He has also been critical of the weakening of anti-corruption institutions under Widodo’s administration.
Although he also lags far behind Prabowo in the polls, Anies has made up some ground late in the game by showing off his rhetorical prowess during the presidential debates. The question is whether it will be enough to snatch a one-round victory from Prabowo on Wednesday.

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