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Opinion | The World’s Third-Largest Democracy Is Backsliding

Indonesia’s transformation into a stable democracy over the past quarter century was as improbable as it was remarkable.

In 1998, the country was on the brink of collapse from a devastating financial crisis and protests that brought down the brutal and corrupt 32-year Suharto dictatorship. Ethnic and religious violence across the sprawling archipelago raised the specter of Balkanization or a military crackdown.

Then, against the odds, the nation’s entrenched elites acceded to public demands for reform and the military withdrew from political life, ushering in an era of open, competitive elections. Corruption and dysfunction persisted, but the world’s fourth most populous country emerged as a rare bright spot for liberalism.

Dark clouds are gathering again. Indonesians will vote for a new president on Wednesday to succeed the outgoing Joko Widodo. But the man expected to win — and the anti-democratic path that Mr. Joko has set the country on — threaten many of the gains Indonesians have achieved.

The overwhelming front-runner in the race is Prabowo Subianto, a 72-year-old former army general under Mr. Suharto who has been implicated in human rights abuses, including the abduction and torture of pro-democracy activists during the anti-Suharto uprising. More than a dozen of those people remain missing and are feared dead; Mr. Prabowo was never formally charged.

He has grasped for the presidency ever since. Mr. Prabowo has criticized the reforms of the democratic era and previously called for reinstating the original 1945 constitution, which would remove checks on presidential power and abolish direct elections. Many critics fear that he would return Indonesia to autocracy.

Perhaps equally disturbing is that Mr. Prabowo’s chances have been greatly boosted by Mr. Joko, who was once a symbol of the nation’s young democracy but has helped undermine institutions and the rule of law during his decade in power. Despite this, he leaves office, after completing the maximum two five-year terms, with approval ratings around 80 percent thanks in large part to the country’s strong economy.

Under Mr. Joko, many Indonesians have seen their lives materially improve through expanded social assistance and the building of airports, highways, seaports and other badly needed infrastructure. The economy is growing by 5 percent a year, and Mr. Joko has sought to use Indonesia’s vast nickel reserves to entice electric vehicle manufacturers such as Tesla and China’s BYD to build factories in the country.

Voters want more. What’s happening in Indonesia is emblematic of a dispiriting global trend in which countries that once championed liberal democracy are allowing it to wither, such as India under Narendra Modi and Trump-era America. Democracy is not dying suddenly or in darkness, but gradually and right before our eyes, as elites weaken democratic norms and institutions for the sake of political expediency while complacent, forgetful citizens look on.

After losing to Mr. Joko in 2014, Mr. Prabowo ran again in 2019 with a blatantly Trumpian campaign in which he embraced nationalist populism and hard-line Islamism, despite being a member of the Indonesian oligarchy — he was at one point the late Mr. Suharto’s son-in-law — with dubious religious credentials. Railing against elites, he pledged to “Make Indonesia Great Again.” After losing yet again, he whipped up supporters by denying the results. Postelection riots left several people dead.

But six months after the election, Mr. Joko appointed Mr. Prabowo as defense minister, bringing the ex-general’s hard-right Gerindra Party into the governing coalition as part of an apparent strategy to counter parliamentary opposition to the president’s economic agenda. Mr. Prabowo’s star rose again, and last October he named Mr. Joko’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the first-term mayor of a small city, as his running mate. Indonesian law bars anyone under 40 from becoming vice president, but the country’s Constitutional Court announced an exemption for existing officeholders like Mr. Gibran. The court’s chief justice is Mr. Joko’s brother-in-law.

Rather than bridle at this blatant interference and the whiff of nepotism, many voters instead seemed to take it as an endorsement of Mr. Prabowo by the wildly popular incumbent, propelling the Prabowo-Gibran ticket to a commanding lead in polls. Mr. Prabowo now tells voters he will continue Mr. Joko’s economic agenda. He has sought to rebrand himself as an avuncular elder statesman who performs silly dances at rallies, but his demagogic nature continues to surface in debates and campaign events.

More than half of the Indonesian electorate is under 40, and many voters are too young to remember Mr. Prabowo’s brutality during the Suharto era. Economic issues, not human rights or civil liberties, top surveys of voter concerns.

Mr. Joko, once the exemplar of his country’s democratic values, has betrayed them. A former furniture manufacturer from the slums of Surakarta, he served as the city’s mayor, and later as governor of Jakarta, building a reputation as a squeaky-clean reformer in a notoriously corrupt system. That, and a folksy man-of-the-people appeal, propelled him to the presidency in 2014 and prompted fawning Western media to dub him Indonesia’s Obama.

But he leaves office with Indonesian democracy more fragile than at any time since the Suharto dictatorship. He weakened the country’s independent anti-corruption commission and signed an overhaul of the criminal code that curtailed freedom of expression, criminalized nonmarital sex and gave the government wide and ill-defined powers to prosecute critics and opponents. He has dispensed patronage, been criticized for meddling in the internal affairs of rival political parties, and allowed the military to play a greater role in civilian life.

Much of this can perhaps be blamed on the nature of Indonesian politics, which can resemble “Game of Thrones” with its horse-trading, dynasticism and the constant need to build and maintain power bases. Mr. Joko was the first president since independence in 1945 to come from outside the political or military elite. Without a network of such backing, Mr. Joko has appeased and co-opted power-brokers and rivals to ensure the passage and survival of his agenda and legacy projects like an ambitious plan to build a new capital city on the island of Borneo.

Those ambitions strongly appeal to voters. But nothing is guaranteed, especially with Mr. Prabowo. The Indonesian presidency has immense powers, and while Mr. Prabowo may campaign on continuity, he is famously erratic and ill-tempered. Who knows what he will do if he finally wins the prize he has sought for so long? Even a steady continuation of Mr. Joko’s governing practices would mean democratic decline; Mr. Prabowo is likely to accelerate that.

Other large multiethnic democracies face similar threats. There is India, where big-ticket public works projects have fueled Mr. Modi’s popularity even as he rolls back democratic rights; Brazil, where militarism is en vogue as the horrors of past military dictatorships fade from memory; and the United States, where Trump may get another shot at the presidency.

Mr. Prabowo is not a lock to win. He is running against Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor from central Java, and Anies Baswedan, a former university president and Jakarta’s former governor. So far, Mr. Prabowo has polled far ahead, at around 50 percent. If he fails to win an outright majority on Wednesday, there will be a runoff in June between the two top finishers.

Much could happen between now and then. For the sake of the world’s third-largest democracy, let’s hope something does.

Gordon LaForge (@gordonlaforge) is a senior policy analyst at New America. He is a former Indonesia Fulbright Fellow and has worked in the country as a journalist.

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