Indonesia presidential race starts with Joko Widodo’s legacy and family in focus

Indonesia’s presidential election is taking shape after two candidates this week joined the race to find a successor to Joko Widodo, the leader since 2014 and one of the world’s most popular politicians.

The vote is already set to be closely watched, given Indonesia’s mineral wealth has made it increasingly important to the global economy. But the election is also a test of the strength of the rule of law in the world’s third-largest democracy, with questions over whether Widodo — who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term — is positioned to retain influence once he leaves office.

On Monday, chief justice of the country’s constitutional court Anwar Usman, Widodo’s brother-in-law, led a panel of nine judges in providing an opening for the president’s eldest son to run for vice-president. Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, does not meet the age requirement of 40 to become president or vice-president, but the court ruled that younger candidates could run if they had held elected regional office.

Gibran, mayor of the Javan city of Surakarta, has been tipped as a potential running mate for Prabowo Subianto, the defence minister and an election frontrunner. Widodo’s son has not formally announced a run, and other candidates are being considered by Prabowo.

Widodo has favoured big-tent coalitions, giving him influence beyond the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest party in parliament which backed his presidential bid. His youngest son, Kaesang Pangarep, last month joined the rival Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) and days later became its chair. Widodo’s son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, has been the mayor of Medan since 2021.

“A famously non-dynastic politician is creating a dynasty. It is a 180-degree turn for someone who rose to power on his humble background and being a political outsider,” said Peter Mumford, south-east Asia analyst for Eurasia Group.

Widodo, or Jokowi as he is popularly known in Indonesia, is a former furniture maker who grew up in a riverside shack in a Javanese village.

The president said on his YouTube channel this week: “I do not want to give an opinion on the constitutional court’s decision because it could be misunderstood as though I’m interfering with the judicial authority.”

Even if Gibran does not run, experts warn the episode has serious longer-term implications, since a key function of the country’s constitutional court is to arbitrate electoral cases.

Bivitri Susanti, a constitutional law lecturer at the Indonesia Jentera School of Law, said it was a “very worrying development” to take the judiciary “into the political arena”.

She pointed out that Indonesia had a series of elections next year that the constitutional court might need to rule on. “If it is seen now as partisan, it will not be trusted. I am worried that this will create conflict,” she said.

Prabowo was the only leading candidate not to put himself forward when registrations for the election opened on Thursday. PDI-P candidate Ganjar Pranowo, Central Java’s governor, and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan registered ahead of an October 25 deadline.

Ganjar Pranowo

The court decision suggests Widodo backs Prabowo, said Kevin O’Rourke, a Jakarta-based analyst on Indonesian politics and economics and principal at consultancy Reformasi Information Services. “It is hard to say for certain, but I think that is a primary reason Prabowo is polling ahead in the head-to-head race [with Ganjar].”

Widodo has been hedging over whether to support Ganjar or Prabowo, who lead the polls. Both are seen as continuity contenders who would largely pursue many of his policies, such as his decision to move the country’s capital to another island.

Anies, polling a distant third, has named the chair of Indonesia’s largest Islamic party as his running mate and is regarded as a “change candidate”. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population.

Widodo remains extraordinarily popular for a leader at the end of his second and final term. An October survey by Indikator Politik put his approval at an all-time high of 86 per cent.

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Indonesia’s economy is expected to grow 5 per cent this year, its September inflation rate of 2.3 per cent is low by global standards and its stock market is enjoying a listings boom.

Widodo has also bet big on the electric vehicle revolution, using Indonesia’s vast reserves of minerals such as nickel to draw in billions of dollars of foreign investment.

So broad is Widodo’s appeal that some of his supporters this year encouraged him to seek an unconstitutional third term in office.

“After years of unpredictability, Indonesia under Jokowi has become more stable and enjoyed record levels of foreign investment. His record on the economy, on improving infrastructure and generally making life for Indonesians better than it was 10 years ago is strong,” said one former ambassador to Indonesia, explaining the drive to keep Widodo in power.

“The question mark, I think, will be his record on anti-corruption and keeping the country’s political integrity intact,” the person added.

For that reason this week’s court decision could end up hurting Indonesians’ positive view of Widodo and harm his legacy, said Sana Jaffrey, a research fellow at the Australian National University.

“Jokowi is popular because of his image as someone who has come from outside,” she said. If the president is seen to be using the tactics of past political dynasties, “he could end up disappointing his supporters”.