The strategy of Indonesian president Joko Widodo—known by all as Jokowi—has worked: his chosen successor, Prabowo Subianto, and his own son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, were elected president and vice-president on February 14 in a landslide, with more than 58 percent of the vote. It is really Jokowi’s victory, though, long in the planning and enormously consequential. He has secured power for Prabowo and Gibran by overseeing a gradual hollowing out of Indonesia’s hard-won democratic system while maintaining his own sky-high popularity.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy, and Jokowi became the face of its success in emerging from decades of dictatorship. Now he has corrupted that success. He couldn’t run for a third term, so he anointed Prabowo, a former general who was once denied a US visa because of allegations of human rights abuses in the 1990s, and Gibran, a businessman and the mayor of Solo, who was too young to be on the ballot until a surprising Constitutional Court decision cleared the way. The losing candidates in the three-way race—the former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and the former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo—are challenging the results and claim that Jokowi and his government unfairly meddled in the election, but the outcome is unlikely to change, given the large margin of victory and sparse evidence of outright vote rigging. The meddling that mattered took place before election day.

Two nights before the polls opened, I attended an event called A Prayer for Truth and Justice, organized by activists and artists from the Reformasi movement that in 1998 ousted General Suharto after thirty-two years of military dictatorship. They gathered at Utan Kayu, a community center in East Jakarta that was one of the command posts for the uprising against Suharto. A procession of dancers, singers, poets, academics, and student activists took to the outdoor stage to protest what they called Jokowi’s rigged election. An éminence grise of Reformasi, the eighty-two-year-old journalist, poet, writer, and painter Goenawan Mohamad, was there. He had been one of the president’s earliest supporters and was active in his 2014 presidential campaign, when Jokowi became the first nonelite politician to win direct election after the repression and corruption of the Suharto era.

All that has changed, Goenawan told me: “Jokowi is a traitor and he betrayed Reformasi” when he accepted the Constitutional Court ruling, issued in October, that the thirty-six-year-old Gibran could run despite the constitution’s requirement that candidates for president and vice-president be at least forty. “The campaign has been rigged to ensure Prabowo’s victory. It is hubris and against democracy,” Goenawan said. “We are here to build up pockets of resistance.” From the stage, a young poet read a famous poem by Widji Thukul, a prodemocracy activist who was kidnapped in 1998 on Prabowo’s orders and has not been seen since.

All the singing and the chants of “We were duped by Jokowi” and “Resist and fight” belied the funereal mood. The anti-Jokowi resistance was too little, too late. By then the polls were clear that Prabowo would win. Like Goenawan, most of those gathered that night had been exuberant Jokowi supporters well into the president’s second term.

Jokowi’s ability to co-opt large swaths of Indonesian society while consolidating immense power is a remarkable and complicated tale. His success with the Utan Kayu and Reformasi supporters provided a useful base that he steadily and deliberately expanded. By the time Goenawan and many others turned against him, Jokowi had perfected his increasingly authoritarian hold on power and had set in motion his plan to secure his influence after his term ended through Prabowo and his son. Most importantly, he had assiduously built his presidency and his popularity on three pillars: maintaining stability, suppressing the threat of radical Islamists and their demand for political dominance, and delivering development, from countless new roads to a gleaming high-speed train to cash handouts from the state. As the election approached, Jokowi’s approval rating hovered near 80 percent. He handed out free rice and cash on the campaign trail. He never explicitly endorsed Prabowo and Gibran, but the message was clear: a vote for them was a vote for a continuation of his rule.

How Jokowi came to dominate Indonesia’s sprawling political landscape and became the first president to determine his successor provides an after-the-fact subtext to The Coalitions Presidents Make: Presidential Power and Its Limits in Democratic Indonesia by Marcus Mietzner. While Mietzner, an Australian National University professor and leading scholar of Indonesia, wrote this important book long before the election, it offers a road map of what has happened. His theme is Indonesia’s never-ending quest for political stability, and he wonders if that quest “is itself the source of democracy’s decay.” Time and again, the answer is yes.


Mietzner’s starting point is the chaos that erupted across this archipelago of 17,000 islands strewn along the equator after Suharto’s ouster. Indonesia faced the challenge of creating a new political structure that would be acceptable to its more than one thousand ethnic groups, who speak more than seven hundred languages; more crucially for the world’s largest Muslim population, the country had to resolve its most controversial issue: the place of Islam in politics.* It took years and four prodemocracy constitutional amendments for a presidential system to emerge that relied on coalitions to govern. In 2004 Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the first directly elected president and, fearful he would be impeached, insisted on ruling by coalition. Mietzner chronicles how Yudhoyono’s grand coalition ushered in stability for a time, but voters had soured on him by the end of his second term.

When Jokowi won in 2014—defeating Prabowo—the scrawny former mayor of Solo was a weak outsider who was loved by the Reformasi and prodemocracy contingent and somewhat ambivalently backed by the party headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first postindependence president, the flamboyant, autocratic Sukarno, and president herself from 2001 to 2004. Jokowi faced blocked cabinet nominations, lack of support from his own party, and recurrent humiliations from Megawati and, more ominously, from Muslims who rejected his proclaimed commitment to pluralism and democratic reform. It didn’t take him long to embrace what Mietzner calls coalitional presidentialism. Within a year he had meddled in the leadership of two opposition parties (which had backed Prabowo in the 2014 election) so that he controlled the majority of parties and seats in the legislature.

As Mietzner’s book makes clear, the crucial milestone in Jokowi’s road to political dominance occurred in 2016, when an alliance of conservative Muslim leaders, hard-line Islamist vigilantes, and Saudi-influenced preachers accused his close ally, the ethnically Chinese and Christian politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, of insulting Islam while campaigning to be elected Jakarta’s governor. They organized a series of rallies that were some of the largest in Indonesia’s history. The capital was flooded with more than 700,000 Muslims demanding that Ahok be charged with blasphemy. It was a political earthquake, and Jokowi acquiesced. Ahok was charged and given a two-year sentence. And he lost the governor’s election to Anies Baswedan, one of the unsuccessful presidential candidates this year.

The anti-Ahok movement transformed Jokowi and Indonesia. Jokowi’s Reformasi supporters, including Goenawan, were horrified, and so were some of the leaders of Indonesia’s gargantuan traditionalist Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which considers puritanical Saudi-influenced Islam an existential threat to its own relaxed, pluralist, local Islam. Jokowi aligned himself with both NU and his prodemocracy supporters. With their support, he eventually sidelined the Islamists behind the protests, all the while strengthening his base.

In February I met with Ulil Abshar Abdalla, now a deputy head of NU, and over lunch at Hello Sunday, a trendy spot inside a colonial-era Art Deco gem in downtown Jakarta, we discussed NU’s alliance with Jokowi. It has been very good for NU, and very good for Ulil. Jokowi understood that he could take advantage of the widespread fear of Islamists, but he needed NU’s backing to suppress them. For NU, the alliance meant a steady flow of state support. For Jokowi, NU’s support meant a huge pool of voters, especially on Java, where more than half of Indonesia’s 279 million citizens live, and he handily won reelection in 2019.

Mietzner describes how Jokowi, emancipated from his party by this backing and buoyed by his popularity, “began his second term with a substantially broadened and consolidated coalition. Prospects of any pro-democracy breakthroughs, however, were also much reduced.” The president had become a virtuoso of coalition politics and Indonesia’s patronage democracy, refining the give-and-take that delivered both stability and democratic decline. He rewarded those who did his bidding and punished those who did not. The political parties, the army, the police, the bureaucrats, the Muslim organizations, and the oligarchs all needed to be part of Jokowi’s circle. In return, he needed to keep them happy.

NU became a state favorite once Jokowi was reelected. Yahya Cholil Staquf, a Jokowi ally, became its head, and his brother, Yaqut Cholil Quomas, became the minister of religious affairs. Ulil, Yahya’s protégé, was given a job promoting NU’s version of Islam with a great deal of state aid. Many jobs in the ministry of religion’s enormous bureaucracy went to NU followers. NU also expanded a campaign to put what it calls Indonesia’s version of tolerant, humanitarian Islam on the global map. (NU celebrates its tolerance, but it did not extend to Communists or leftists in 1965 and 1966, when, after a failed coup, hundreds of thousands of them were killed by, among others, NU’s willing executioners. And it doesn’t extend to Islamists, Shias, or gay Indonesians today.) Ulil proudly pointed out that more than 50 percent of Indonesians identify themselves as aligned with NU. When Jokowi cracked down on Islamists and banned two Islamist organizations, NU leaders applauded. “Jokowi knew there is a deep fear of the Islamists, and he knew NU would help him use that fear,” said Ulil.


These measures were just the beginning of Jokowi’s use of that fear to consolidate power. His loyalists were put in charge of Indonesia’s vast police apparatus, which steadily marginalized and criminalized Islamist activists. Beyond the banning of organizations, people deemed pro-Islamist were removed from campuses and the state bureaucracy. Slowly this marginalization broadened to include all government critics, not just Islamists. The NGO Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network reported a drastic increase in the criminalization of online expression in 2022, with 107 people charged under Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions law, a threefold increase from the previous year. Most were charged with defaming state officials and institutions. Much of the incremental crackdown went unnoticed, except by those seen as threats to Jokowi’s expanding control. He is a master of knowing his voters, and he tracks polling data to determine what is possible and what will create a backlash.

Jokowi’s reelection, Mietzner writes, led to two important turning points in the consolidation of his coalitional presidency. First, under pressure from political parties in his coalition, Jokowi failed to stop the wrecking of the Corruption Eradication Commission, known as the KPK, one of most important institutions established in the reform era that followed the end of Suharto’s regime. The KPK has been exceedingly popular and effective in rooting out widespread political and business corruption. Scores of local and national politicians have been hauled off in front of TV cameras over the years, wearing the telltale orange vests of KPK suspects. More than five hundred politicians, businesspeople, police officers, and civil servants have been prosecuted by the KPK. And for years politicians tried to curb its extensive investigative powers but were always stopped by an outcry from civil society. Then rumors circulated on social media and political talk shows that Islamists had infiltrated the KPK. Support for it waned, and in 2019 a law was passed that destroyed the KPK’s independence and left it a shell.

The second turning point was Jokowi’s surprising choice of Prabowo as his defense minister. Prabowo had been a rising general under Suharto and had married one of the dictator’s daughters. In the regime’s waning days he oversaw a special forces unit, called the Rose Team, that was accused of kidnapping and torturing more than twenty activists, thirteen of whom are still missing and presumed killed. Prabowo has admitted that there were kidnappings, but he denies any involvement in the killings of anti-Suharto activists. He has also been accused of human rights abuses in East Timor during the now independent nation’s long, brutal occupation by Indonesia. And he was associated with a segment of the army that instigated riots in Jakarta in a failed attempt to prolong Suharto’s rule during its last weeks. After Suharto’s overthrow, Prabowo was vilified as a symbol of the regime’s brutality. He was forced to retire early from the military and spent more than a year in exile in Jordan.

President Joko Widodo voting in Indonesia’s general elections, Jakarta


President Joko Widodo voting in Indonesia’s general elections, Jakarta, February 14, 2024

Over the years this dark history simply faded away. Prabowo became a business tycoon and politician. He ran unsuccessfully for president twice against Jokowi—in 2014 as a nationalist strongman and in 2019 as a defender of the Islamists. After his appointment as defense minister, he seized the chance to reinvent himself again. He praised Jokowi as the nation’s best president and went out of his way to present himself as Jokowi’s protégé. The US, too, softened its view, granting him a visa once he became defense minister. Jokowi and Prabowo’s reconciliation helped them both. Mietzner writes:

Prabowo’s integration into the presidential coalition not only accommodated Widodo’s archrival and neutralized the threat of him becoming an anti-government agitator, but it also sent further signals to the military that it did not have to fear legal prosecution and could rest assured that its officers had opportunities to prosper under democratic rule.

Since Jokowi’s second term was consumed with the Covid-19 pandemic and his pet project—building a new national capital in the jungle in the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo—the president and his advisers started hinting that he needed a third term to finish all that he had started. Megawati, the imperious head of the PDI-P, the party that had twice nominated him as its presidential candidate, refused to go along, citing the constitutional limit of two terms. Jokowi, irked by Megawati’s opposition, had his advisers explore other options for retaining influence. There were several, and his strongest asset was his consistent 75 to 80 percent approval ratings, which ensured that his support would be significant to the candidate he backed in the election. For a while it seemed that Jokowi’s choice as successor would be Ganjar, PDI-P’s candidate, but his deteriorating relationship with Megawati helps explain why he rejected that option.

All the while Prabowo wooed Jokowi, even promising that Jokowi could select cabinet ministers if he won. By August of last year the Constitutional Court, the other hallowed reform-era institution, had before it a case challenging the clause of the constitution preventing Gibran from running for vice-president. On October 16 the court, whose chief justice was Jokowi’s brother-in-law, Anwar Usman, issued a ruling allowing Gibran to be on the ticket. (A few weeks later the court’s ethics council removed Anwar from his post as chief justice, but he was allowed to remain on the court, and the ruling was binding.) Prabowo’s support went from 37 percent in October to 47 percent in December. Jokowi had, once again, correctly read his voters.

By the time I had lunch with Ulil, the Prabowo-Gibran campaign had set its sights on winning over 50 percent of the vote in the first round and avoiding a runoff. Prabowo’s team had successfully recast him as a cute, cuddly—gemoy in Indonesian—grandpa, and TikTok was full of images of the rotund Prabowo sashaying across campaign stages, doing his signature gemoy dance. NU is supposed to be neutral in elections, but its head, Yahya Cholil Staquf, known as Gus Yahya, was clearly pushing for Prabowo. Ulil was keen to explain to me why Yahya and NU had no choice but to back him. “Prabowo is the bet on the table, and Prabowo is the best bet for NU. We have to fight for what is good for NU, and that is state support. We have big plans, and it is expensive,” he told me.

I’m not comfortable, but I have to help Gus Yahya. He had to make a calculation, and Gus Yahya decided that only Prabowo—because of Jokowi—can guarantee us a partnership with the state. That is what NU needs.

I went to Jombang, a town in East Java considered the heartland of NU, to see if the mostly NU voters there agreed with Gus Yahya’s and Ulil’s assessment. Jombang, a bustling place with no skyscrapers, is known as a kota santri—a city of Muslim students—because of its thousands of Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren. Despite this being the hometown of Muhaimin Iskandar, the vice-presidential candidate on Anies Baswedan’s ticket, nearly everyone I met was voting for Prabowo. In a neighborhood of Jombang called Tambak Beras, about fifty pesantren, with some 12,000 students, are scattered along the winding lanes. Mohammad Hasib Wahab Hasbullah, the titular head of the area, invited me to sit in his garden and talk about the campaign. He sounded like Ulil as he explained why he supported Prabowo: NU must be close to the government. As students walked through the narrow streets, the girls in colorful headscarves and the boys in batik sarongs, Hasbullah said that Jokowi had done so much for NU, from creating a national Santri Day to endorsing a bill that bolstered the standing of pesantren in the national education system to adding Hasbullah’s grandfather to the roster of national heroes. “And now, just like Jokowi, we want Prabowo,” he added.

The soft-spoken head of a pesantren close by also invited me in to talk. He told me that even though Gus Yahya had said he would be neutral, it was clear he was supporting Prabowo. In December Gus Yahya invited about two hundred pesantren leaders from Jombang to the Shangri-La hotel in Surabaya and asked them to turn out the vote for Prabowo. Then the head of the pesantren invoked what I came to think of as Ulil’s mantra: NU needs to be close to the government. At this point, his wife joined the conversation. “This is a very bad election. This is a dynasty election. Why choose Gibran? Why him?” she asked. “Because that is what Jokowi wants, and Gus Yahya goes along.” She said she would not be voting for Prabowo-Gibran.

Everywhere I went there were young students participating in English storytelling competitions and preaching contests. When I asked a few of them which candidates they favored, most shyly smiled and then raised two fingers, indicating Prabowo and Gibran, who had the number two spot on the ballot. Jokowi’s popularity was a huge reason for this support, but there was also some not-so-subtle pressure.

Ahmad Athoillah, the head of the Anies-Muhaimin team in Jombang, complained that the campaign was not fair. “We were betrayed by Prabowo. There was an agreement that Prabowo would team up with Muhaimin. We worked for a long time and introduced Prabowo to many of the pesantren here,” he said as we sat in the campaign offices. “But Prabowo broke that promise, and now even NU is backing Prabowo. NU must say that all citizens are free to choose, but instead they are saying you must vote for Prabowo.” Athoillah described pressure on village heads to get out the vote for Prabowo. He brought up the case of East Java’s popular governor, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, who is also the head of NU’s powerful women’s arm. She had initially refrained from supporting Prabowo, but she made a big public endorsement just weeks after the KPK searched her office for evidence of alleged misappropriation of funds. “This isn’t fair,” he repeated.

At a women’s gathering one night, Muhaimin’s mother, Muhasonah Iskandar, led the group in prayers and recited from the Quran. She is a beloved figure in Jombang, but many of the women whispered that that wouldn’t stop people from voting for Prabowo. Prabowo’s campaign has so much money, they said as we sat on a carpeted floor. One woman, a pesantren teacher, told me that Prabowo’s team gave the head of one pesantren a new car. Another was given funds for a new dormitory. Someone else was promised a trip to Mecca.

In the last days of the campaign, a long documentary called Dirty Vote was released online. By election day it had been viewed more than 13 million times. It attempted to reveal on a broad, national scale the state pressure Ahmad Athoillah had complained of in Jombang. Dirty Vote alleges that the campaign was tilted in Prabowo’s favor by a pattern of extensive state intervention, some legal and some illegal. Dirty Vote went viral, but it didn’t alter the outcome.

The Prabowo-Gibran government will not be sworn in until October, leaving plenty of time for a new coalitional presidency to emerge. Indonesia’s democracy will not improve under Prabowo, but it won’t necessarily get worse, either. He has no reason to blow up the diminished system he will inherit. He has all the tools he needs to silence dissent and can use state resources to consolidate power. But there are risks. Will his alliance with Jokowi last? What will Jokowi do? Would Prabowo prevail in a contest between them?

A falling-out is probably inevitable. One cause could be the budget. Construction of the new capital, Jokowi’s pet project, is very expensive, and Prabowo built his campaign around a promise of free lunches to all students, with a price tag of $28.8 billion over the next five years, according to the head of his campaign. Prabowo’s chameleon personality may change again, and his earlier disdain for democracy may reemerge. He may see the tactics used in this campaign as a precedent for intervention in future elections. Then there is the issue of his health. He is now seventy-two, and if he doesn’t make it to the end of his five-year term, Jokowi’s son will become president. So much has changed in Indonesia, but the sense of uncertainty that plagued the nation after Suharto fell has roared back for many. Jokowi’s victory has come at a high cost.

March 7, 2024