Indonesian elections: Politico-business elites advance control over state institutions

March 21, 2024
Two men saluting each other
President Joko Widodo mobilised state social assistance funds and the state bureaucratic apparatus to openly support the Prabowo-Gibran campaign. Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia (Public domain)

Quick count and real count results for Indonesia’s general election held on February 14 revealed Prabowo Subianto — a former general in Suharto’s military regime until it was overthrown in 1998 — to be the victor in the country’s presidential race.

Prabowo and his vice-presidential running mate Gibran Rakabuming — President Joko Widodo “Jokowi’s” son — secured about 58% of the popular vote in the first round.

Indonesians struggled to make sense of the result. In all four direct presidential elections held since Indonesia’s democratic Reformasi movement brought Suharto’s New Order dictatorship to an end, no presidential candidate has won an absolute majority in the first round.

Some commentators put Prabowo’s result down to three factors: his successful image rehabilitation; Jokowi’s open and direct support for Prabowo and Gibran; and Prabowo’s personal popularity relative to rivals Anies Baswedan (former governor of Jakarta) and Ganjar Pranowo (former governor of Central Java).

Others explained the result as the weakness of mobilised social forces at the grassroots level and the use of “money politics”.

Jokowi’s massive mobilisation of state social assistance funds and the state bureaucratic apparatus to openly support the Prabowo-Gibran campaign were also seen as driving factors.

Evidence of election engineering

However, in the few weeks since the election, more and more evidence of widespread, systematic and structured election fraud has emerged.

Evidence made public shows a systematic and well-coordinated plan to influence voting patterns across the country in favour of Prabowo, in the weeks and months leading up to the election and in the recording of votes.

The Constitutional Court made a shock decision on October 16 to allow presidential and vice presidential candidates under the age of 40 to run for office, if they have previously been elected to regional office. This decision was presided over by Jokowi’s brother-in-law (and Gibran’s uncle), Chief Justice Anwar Usman. The decision made it possible for Gibran — who was the sitting mayor of Surakarta — to become Prabowo’s running mate.

Following complaints filed by activists and legal experts with the court, Anwar was removed from his position as Chief Justice by the the Honorary Council of the Constitutional Court on November 7, following an investigation into “ethical violations”. He remains a member of the Constitutional Court.

Further evidence and allegations revealed through social media included the replacement of more than 50% of elected provincial and district heads with public servants, known “Jokowi loyalists”, in the two years prior to the elections; alleged threats and coercion of local village heads to mobilise local votes for Prabowo-Gibran; and a massive diversion of state funds from ministries to direct social assistance funds to citizens in the year preceding the election.

In early March, Jusuf Kalla, Jokowi’s first-term vice-president and a member of the politico-business elite, declared the 2024 election to be the worst in Indonesia’s history. In an unusual display of political openness, Kalla said the elections “had been governed by minorities, people who can afford it, government people, people with money” and said that if action is not taken to challenge this, Indonesia’s future will be bleak.

Class conflict and co-option

Beyond the question of how Prabowo could win such a significant victory lies the question of what the allegations of election fraud by state actors and politicians on a massive scale tell us about Indonesian politics and the social and political conflicts between different social classes.

In my view, some of the answers lie in the development of post-dictatorship social class conflicts and the strategies and tactics used by political elites and grassroots activists alike.

When the Suharto dictatorship fell in 1998, one of the popular demands of the Reformasi movement was for decentralisation of political and economic power to the local regions.

After decades of centralised control of local resources, many social groups, such as farmers, fishers, workers and students, mobilised, demanding that local resources be used to benefit local communities. These included demands for land redistribution and the restoration of lands confiscated by the New Order state.

Demands for political decentralisation included direct elections for mayors, district heads and governors, which came into effect in May 2005 after the passing of the Law of Regional Governments in 2004. Reform also took place at village level, with communities demanding to elect new village heads who were more responsive to local community needs.

During Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY’s) presidency, in 2004‒14, the state made numerous concessions to social movement activists, human rights organisations and organised sectoral groups representing workers and farmers. Some of these activists and organisations were invited to partner with government to draft laws, make policy recommendations and fund programs at sub-district level that claimed to ensure development from the bottom up, using participatory planning approaches.

In practice, this approach by state actors diverted activists from popular mobilisations and grassroots organising to indoor meetings of social movement representatives, while the state provided material incentives for activists to focus their energies on state-civil society “partnerships”.

Undermining democracy

At the same time, a powerful minority of political and economic elites from the Suharto regime, including Prabowo, mobilised within parliament during SBY’s presidency to restrict participation in elections to parties with access to significant financial and bureaucratic resources, making it virtually impossible for small parties or independent candidates to fulfil the administrative requirements. This stymied the aspirations of many local grassroots organisations and progressive and left-wing parties to run alternative candidates to those fielded by parties dominated by powerful political elites.

Jokowi was selected as the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle’s (PDI-P) presidential candidate in 2014. He was the first presidential candidate not associated directly with the Suharto regime. A regional businessman from Central Java, Jokowi was mayor of Surakarta City and governor of Jakarta province prior to being elected president.

Jokowi’s election campaign mobilised many groups of progressive intellectuals, activists, students and sectoral organisations in support. In his first presidential term, many well-known activists were given positions in his advisory office or as commissars of state companies or as ministerial officials, bringing the co-option of social movement actors to new levels.

In 2014, Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, along with five parties in the red-white parliamentary coalition, used the final moments of their parliamentary majority in SBY’s second presidential term to pass the Regional Elections Law (UU Pilkada). The legislation replaced direct elections with appointment of regional leaders.

Public opposition effectively halted this move and direct elections at district level were reinstated. But a series of legislative revisions in 2016 and 2020, as well as a majority consensus among parliamentary factions, resulted in the cancellation of regional elections for 2022 and 2023 and opened up the opportunity for central state ministries and the executive to directly appoint regional heads.

By the end of last year, more than half of all regional heads were “caretakers” appointed by the central government. Indonesia Corruption Watch reports indicate that the pattern of interim appointments and the structural relationship of appointees is one of deference to the priorities and interests of central government, rather than local and regional constituents.

A new Village Law was enacted in 2014. Agrarian activists and development advocates were involved in drafting the law, hoping this would progress democratic reform in rural society and benefit marginalised rural communities. However, in practice the law has bureaucratised village government structures, replacing elected leaders at hamlet levels with “staff” selected through an application process.

The law has also given power to the village head to make decisions without consultation and veto village representative body decisions.

While Reformasi saw demands for accountability of elected representatives produce structures more accountable to the grassroots, this new village law — which has decentralised some state funds to village governments — has made village heads more responsive to central government demands.

Inter-elite cooperation

In Jokowi’s second presidential period (2019‒24), he brought most political parties and politico-business elites into a united parliament, giving cabinet positions to all parties and securing a second presidential term without any serious parliamentary opposition.

This level of inter-elite cooperation ensured the passing of rafts of legislation such as the Omnibus Law of 2020 that supported the intensification of human and natural resource exploitation while removing environmental safeguards and providing concessions to domestic and foreign capital investors.

In the same period, repression of social movement and civil society actors who were campaigning for rights and speaking out against government corruption and exploitation rose to levels not witnessed since the end of the New Order dictatorship.

This coordinated plan to engage in massive and systematic election fraud can be understood as a logical next step in the consolidation of the politico-business elites' control over structural institutions of power.

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