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Indonesian elections: nationalism and the men most likely

On Wednesday, Indonesians will go to the polls to elect their national, provincial and area representatives for the next five years. These elections will not only determine who controls parliament, but…

Jokowi, the current favourite to be Indonesia’s next president, represents a break from the old Indonesian political elites. EPA/Adi Weda

On Wednesday, Indonesians will go to the polls to elect their national, provincial and area representatives for the next five years. These elections will not only determine who controls parliament, but also influence the selection of candidates for the presidential election in July.

In order to nominate a presidential candidate, parties or coalitions must hold a minimum of 20% of the seats in parliament or receive 25% of votes nationwide. Indonesia’s current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyno (SBY), is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, so Indonesia is guaranteed a new president no matter what.

Electoral campaigns in Indonesia, as in many countries, tend to centre around domestic issues. This election campaign is no different. But the central role of economic nationalist discourse indicates that a change in government may have real consequences for Indonesia’s relations with foreign countries.

For example, food security in Indonesia has come to prominence as an election issue. Several parties argue that Indonesia needs to reduce its imports and focus on feeding itself. The current reliance on outsiders is presented as a failure of government.

There are also calls to ensure that the profits from mining projects flow to national coffers and not those of foreign investors.

Having an understanding of the backgrounds of candidates and the priorities of the parties they represent will prepare Australia and other countries for the impending changes in Indonesia’s government. The two current frontrunners are Jakarata governor Joko Widodo – commonly known as Jokowi – and Prabowo Subianto, a former military leader from the Suharto period.

Both candidates have vastly different backgrounds and will present different challenges and opportunities for Australia. So, who are they? And what do they stand for?


Jokowi, the much-loved “people’s politician”, is a former furniture shop owner from Central Java who rose to prominence and elected to office on a wave of public enthusiasm for change.

Jokowi represents a break from the old Indonesian political elites. He has no family pedigree in politics and a penchant for impromptu visits to villages and low-ranking officials (commonly referred to in Indonesia as “blusukan”). His gubernatorial campaign was lauded for its creativity, taking advantage of his status as a media darling and relying heavily on social media.

The implications of a Jokowi presidency for foreign relations is something the region should be prepared for. Importantly for Australia, he has limited international diplomatic experience and has issued little commentary on international affairs. The closest media coverage of Jokowi seems to get to touching upon international issues are discussions of his love for Metallica.

The party which nominated Jokowi, the People’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), consistently draws on nationalist rhetoric. Chaired by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, PDI-P likes to present itself as Indonesia’s one true nationalist party.

In the wake of last year’s spying scandal, PDI-P members argued that both the Australian and US ambassadors should be expelled from Indonesia to send a clear message to these countries about the unacceptable nature of their behaviour.


Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s likely opponent for the presidency, is akin to political royalty. He is the leader of the country’s most well-funded political party – Gerindra – and is from a very well-respected political family. He was the son-in-law of former president Suharto. Comparatively, he is much more worldly than Jokowi, having lived overseas and speaking fluent English.

Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s likely opponent for the presidency, is akin to political royalty in Indonesia. EPA/Made Nagi

Notably, Prabowo also came to Australia’s defence over the spying scandal. He accused SBY of manipulating the situation for political purposes and chastising him for his sensitivity when it is a well-known fact that countries regularly spy on each other.

While Prabowo was quick to defend Australia’s phone tapping, his party’s platform also has a strong economic nationalist slant, with little mention of international relations.

Prabowo has also been keen to present himself as a nationalist. This has even extended to his party publishing a story last year in which he discussed his decision to reject a prestigious scholarship to an American university early in his career because he believed that a true patriot would stay in Indonesia to dedicate his life to defending his country.

Indonesia’s presidential race remains open for the time being. Many parties are awaiting the outcome of the parliamentary race before forming coalitions and selecting presidential and vice-presidential candidates. And while Jokowi may be ahead in current polling, three months is a long time in politics.

But if the current favourites are indicative of the general trends in Indonesia, Australia should be prepared to renegotiate its relationship with its close neighbour – whoever Indonesia’s new president is.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Bony Limas

    logged in via Facebook

    this article is not balanced and seemed to side on Prabowo. You forgot to mentioned Prabowo's involvement in the missing uni students during the 1998 riots and demonstration. Prestigious scholarship from the American university? Seriously? He is still banned from entering the US.

    1. Elisabeth Kramer

      PhD Candidate, Department of Indonesian Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Bony Limas

      Dear Bony,

      You are right to point out Prabowo's troubled past with human rights which is well-documented.It is not the intention of this article to shy away from this. It is, however, the aim of this article is to highlight the nationalist discourse used by candidates and ask the question of what this might mean should either man become president. The article also focuses on the implications for Australia-Indonesia relations and he has (as far as I know, please feel free to present contrary advice) on being banned from Australia. Also, please click the link in the article to see the Gerindra article published on his scholarship offered. I cannot verify the offer, but merely point out that it has been used to position him as a true patriot.

      Thanks for your comment.

    2. Elisabeth Kramer

      PhD Candidate, Department of Indonesian Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Elisabeth Kramer

      Sorry- that should read that as far as I know Prabowo has not been banned from Australia and if anyone has evidence that he is I would encourage them to provide it here.

  2. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    That Jokowi has said little on international issues is more likely to be prudence and careful strategy rather than any lack of interest or paucity of understanding.

    He is unlikely to do anything that would "frighten the horses" - foreign governments, multinational corporations, the hysterical western news media, the Javanese upper class outside the PDI-P or any ultra-Moslem elements - so early in his run for President.

    Once elected, it will a very different matter indeed.

    How well prepared are we in Australia for a Jokowi Presidency?

    1. Elisabeth Kramer

      PhD Candidate, Department of Indonesian Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Graham Bell

      Hi Graham,

      This is indeed the question and it is heightened by the fact that there is very little on the public record about his opinion on foreign relations in contrast to Prabowo. I wouldn't expect him to make many statements at all on foreign policy, even after the presidential campaigns begin in earnest, so that all we really have to go on is speculation regarding his party affiliation. Should he win, we will also have to pay close attention to who he selects as advisers and as Foreign Affairs minister.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Rebecca Conroy

    logged in via Facebook

    When I lived in Jakarta we had a mangy cat that used to hang around whom we called Prabowo; such was the distaste for a man who is yet to be brought before a human rights court - It is well known, his Kopassus unit was responsible for the dissapearance, torture and murder of many activists in 1998. Not to mention his savage work in Timor Leste. This is important information which you should have mentioned in your article.

  4. Aaron Meadows

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Elisabeth,

    Why have you focused on presidential candidates in an article supposedly about the legislative election? There are a number of questions that should have been asked, including; "what will be the fate of the four Islamic parties currently in the DPR". Also of interest will be the fate of Golkar and what this will mean for Aburizal Bakri, both going into the presidential poll and beyond.

    1. Elisabeth Kramer

      PhD Candidate, Department of Indonesian Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Aaron Meadows

      Hi Aaron,

      As my research focuses on election discourse I don't have the background to really offer comment on the potential results the of the election- I''m just watching and waiting like everyone else! But numerous surveys have been conducted and many of these are available in local media (both Indonesian and English-language). You may also like to check out ANU's New Mandala blog called 'Indonesia Votes' ( which…

      Read more
  5. Ria Yusriana

    Professional Worker

    Prabowo vs Jokowi both are the most popular candidates among than others candidates, being discuss especially on the business environment.
    On line and internet media are very open wide taking up everything related to both Prabowo and Jokowi for the background as well.
    As one of the voter, this time I'm really need to be understand what kind of program and strategies that candidates offered, track record, capabilities, idea, concept, knowledge, broad vision and diplomacy ability, thus we have the right decision to put the vote precisely that can have the good impact for future of the nation.

    As far as I done read the book, I done internet searching, I do see the oration and speeches, Prabowo is the one I looking for except to the point of Prabowo's troubled past with human rights, which is from my understanding he Just doing his Jobs and follow the order from superior.

    1. Graham Bell

      Scrap-heaped War Veteran

      In reply to Ria Yusriana

      It seems you are intent on making a careful and well-considered choice of candidate for whom you will vote.
      The founders of the Republic of Indonesia - and their idealistic, visionary predecessors - would be proud of you and for the respect you show towards your democratic rights.