2024 has been dubbed the “Year of Elections” since nearly half of the world’s population are facing elections this year. Some of these, such as those in Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Belarus are pro forma theater, farces, meant to bolster the legitimacy of a ruler or ruling elite who have no intention of being removed from power simply by the mere wishes of a majority. And don’t hold your breath waiting for the results of Russia’s March 17 Presidential election.

Of course, other elections are more significant. But comparatively little attention is being paid to Indonesia’s election, whose first round is February 14, despite the fact that the voters will choose the President, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Provincial leaders. Indonesia is too often overlooked despite being the world’s fourth largest country, the third largest democracy, and the seventh largest economy in purchasing power parity, not to mention by far the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

There are three Presidential candidates and if none gets over 50% of the vote in the first round, including at least 20% of the vote in 19 of the 38 Provinces, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters on June 26.

Most recent polls show current Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto at 45-52%, and so he might win the first round outright. The two other candidates, former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, hover around 17% and 22% respectively.

If Prabowo (Indonesians usually refer to the candidates by their first name, or else by nicknames) wins it could be bad news for Indonesia.

He is the son-in-law of the last Indonesian dictator, Suharto, and, though now divorced, this provided a path for him into Indonesia’s elite. He is a graduate of the Indonesian Military Academy and spent most his military career in the Special Forces. In Suharto’s final years he was the military commander responsible for carrying out the ruler’s heavy-handed repression of democracy activists. In 1998, after Suharto was forced to step down after widespread demonstrations, Prabowo was banned from entering the United States because of alleged human rights violations and was dishonorably discharged from the military. 

Despite this, he has already run for President twice, each time being defeated by current President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi. Despite their history of being political opponents, after his second win Jokowi appointed Prabowo Minister of Defense, and in the last year there has been an implicit electoral alliance between them.

A year ago such an alliance appeared extremely unlikely. Jokowi grew up in poverty, made money exporting furniture, and was elected the mayor of the town of Solo in Central Java. From this base he then ran successfully for Governor of the capital, Jakarta, and used this as a springboard to become President. He was the first President from outside Indonesia’s elites and came into office with high expectations. He has focused on economic policy and his ten-year tenure has generally been marked by stability and economic growth.

Jokowi is now term-limited, but in his last year in office there have been troubling developments. Several groups pushed for changes to allow him to run for a third term. Jokowi played no public part in this but there are suspicions that he supported these efforts. He has also involved himself in the election for his successor–there is no law against that but Indonesian custom disapproves of it.

More troubling has been Jokowi’s maneuvers to advance the career of his oldest son, Gibran Rakabuming, currently the mayor of the central Java town of Solo, where his father began his political career. The Indonesian constitution requires that candidates for President or Vice-President must be 40 years old and Gibran is only 36. But, in October 2023, the Constitutional Court held that the relevant clause could allow exceptions for candidates who had won “a general election, including a regional leader election,” such as, perchance, winning an election to become mayor of Solo. This verdict was read out by Chief Justice Anwar Usman, who coincidentally is Jokowi’s brother-in-law and Gibran’s uncle.

That these maneuvers were dynastic in intention was confirmed when Gibran was selected as a Vice-Presidential running mate—by, of all people, Prabowo. Many believe Jokowi has made a deal with Prabowo to give this tacit support in exchange for the latter continuing his policies and advancing his family’s political careers. Jokowi’s continues to be very popular and his implicit support is one reason that Prabowo and Gibran hold their lead in the polls.

This is troubling for many reasons. Apart from his authoritarian past, in the last Presidential election Prabowo also sought support from Indonesia’s Islamists, including appearing in a rally with the now-banned Islamic Defenders Front. Radical forms of Islam are a minority in this largely tolerant country, which is marked by Islam moderasi, but their influence has been growing. 

While Jokowi never catered to radical groups, and banned several of them, there has been a marked increase in religious freedom violations and blasphemy convictions during his Presidency. And, while Prabowo is no Islamist, he has shown a willingness to give them concessions in order to secure their votes.

There is a danger that Indonesia may revert to more authoritarian and dynastic politics against this background of increasing radicalism.