The biggest threat to Indonesia’s democracy? It’s not Prabowo, it’s the oligarchy


The day before Indonesia’s general election on February 14, former journalist and Indonesian political observer Ben Bland argued front-runner former army general Prabowo Subianto would not turn Indonesia into an autocracy if he was elected to succeed President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

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This is because Indonesia, according to Bland, has established democratic norms that would eventually constrain Prabowo’s authoritarian tendencies.

As a civil society researcher and political journalist, I find his argument problematic. Bland is giving the wrong answer to the wrong question about Indonesian politics today.

This is not the beginning of a battle between Indonesia’s democracy and Prabowo. It is the last nail in the coffin of whatever is left of Indonesia’s reform era, a period of democratic consolidation after the downfall of Suharto in 1998.

It has come under severe pressure from the oligarchic powers revolving around Jokowi.

Civil power loses to oligarchs

Prabowo’s electoral victory is, in fact, only the latest instance in a series of painful defeats suffered by democracy supporters.

Oligarchy is defined as a

“system of power relations that enables the concentration of wealth and authority and its collective defence”.

In Indonesia, the modern oligarchy was formed during the expansion of market capitalism under the authoritarian rule of Suharto (1966-1998), which paved the way for the alliance of powerful bureaucrats and big businesses to amass wealth and power.

Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s Defense Minister who is running for presidency in 2024 election.
Hafidz Mubarak A/Antara Foto

Pro-democracy activists and academics have repeatedly sounded the alarm bell about the oligarchic subversion of Indonesia’s democracy.

But things have deteriorated under Jokowi – the so-called democratic and reformist candidate who defeated Prabowo in the 2014 and 2019 national elections.

Jokowi has presided over various attempts by the oligarchy to undermine, if not dismantle, Indonesia’s democratic institutions.

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In 2019, the Indonesian parliament passed a law that rendered its anti-corruption body irrelevant. Considering the body a threat to their interests, the oligarchs sponsored the issuance of the controversial law.

In 2020, it approved an omnibus law on jobs creation that rolled back the legal achievements made by supporters of the reform movement after Suharto’s downfall.

Mining oligarchs — some of them are members of Jokowi’s cabinet — supported the law because it accommodates their interests.

These setbacks prompted local and international scholars to say Indonesia is suffering from “a democratic regression” and facing “an illiberal turn”.

What is more concerning is not Prabowo’s authoritarian tendency or dislike of democracy but the predatory interests of oligarchs who have put a strain on Indonesia’s democratic institutions to further their political and economic powers.

Democratic decline under Jokowi

Jokowi’s political shenanigans before the February election showed how fragile Indonesia’s democratic institutions are under oligarchic pressures.

The president has been accused of interfering in the election to ensure that Prabowo, who ran with Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, could win the race in a single round.

For instance, the Constitutional Court made a controversial ruling last year to allow Gibran to be Prabowo’s running mate despite the fact he was below the mandated age for running for president or vice president. The court was led by Jokowi’s brother-in-law, Anwar Usman. He was later found guilty of ethics breach for not recusing himself from the case despite clearly having a conflict of interest.

The heavily criticised court decision sparked public protests over the apparent conflict of interest.

Jokowi’s government was also accused of doling out food aid and cash handouts to the public, as well as mobilising the police, military and government officials to tip the balance for the Prabowo-Gibran ticket by pressuring village heads to support the pair.

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This does not necessarily mean Prabowo would do much worse than Jokowi in subverting democracy. Prabowo will also be constrained by the same architecture of power relations that had shaped the political choices of his predecessor. The extent to which he can rule as an autocrat depends on the power struggle among the elites.

Jokowi is widely seen by many as a cunning politician. But still, he cannot escape the oligarchic system of power that constrains his choices. He failed to get a third term not because the idea contradicted the Constitution, but because the proposal for a Constitutional amendment was blocked by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the country’s largest political party.

So, it was, in fact, an intra-elite struggle and not institutional democratic safeguards that put the proposal to rest.

The oligarch’s hands

Jokowi’s acrobatic political manoeuvrings to help Prabowo win the election were also only made possible by the fact that the oligarchs mainly those from the mining industry, considered him a political force who can best accommodate their interests.

Garibaldi Thohir, a coal businessman and the brother of State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir (a member of the Prabowo campaign team), boasted a group of businesspeople would help the Prabowo-Gibran ticket win the election in a single round. One of them through campaign fund supports.

Indonesian President Joko
Adwit Pramono/Antara Foto

These businesspeople, Garibaldi claimed, are among Indonesia’s wealthiest families, including owners of the country’s largest cigarette firms, such as the Djarum group(owned by the Hartono family). The companies have denied Garibaldi’s controversial claim that they backed Prabowo’s campaign.

This is not to say that no elements of the oligarchy were backing the other two election tickets.

One of Prabowo’s rivals in the presidential race, Anies Baswedan, who is also a former Jakarta governor, was mainly backed by media mogul Surya Paloh, the leader of the NasDem Party, who also has businesses in the mining and property industries.

Several big names in the mining industry, such as Saratoga Investama Sedaya co-founder Sandiaga Uno and Indonesia’s Chamber of Trade and Commerce chairman Arsjad Rasjid, meanwhile, were supporting another presidential candidate, Ganjar Pranowo.

But the Jokowi-Prabowo alliance had the largest support from members of the oligarchy. The Prabowo campaign’s initial campaign fund at Rp 31.4 billion (US$2 million) was 31 times higher than his main competitor Anies. It is suspected that oligarchs are one of the main sources of political financing in Indonesia.

It is only natural for foreign observers to be anxious about the fate of Indonesia under Prabowo. However, the real question is what the oligarchs are up to now that Prabowo is in charge.

At this point, Indonesia’s democracy is already in tatters.

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