The Guardian view on Indonesia’s elections: Prabowo’s win is dismal news for democracy | Editorial

When Joko Widodo took power in Indonesia 10 years ago, his victory brought relief as well as celebration. It was not merely that the former Jakarta governor was the first president to be elected from outside the political or military elite. It was also that he defeated ex-general Prabowo Subianto, who had attacked direct elections and said that he would take the country in a more authoritarian direction. There was every reason to take that threat seriously. Mr Prabowo was dismissed from the military ­– and barred from entering the US – due to allegations of the abduction and torture of activists by men in his unit, though he has always denied involvement.

Yet now, as the president leaves office, Mr Prabowo is set to replace him – thanks in large part to his former rival’s (unofficial) support. With 205 million voters and 820,000 polling stations spread across the thousands of islands in the world’s fourth most populous nation, completing the final tally could take weeks. But Mr Prabowo, currently defence minister, enjoys a commanding lead in “quick counts” by independent polling firms, which have proved accurate in previous contests. That suggests he will not face a runoff.

Having reached his two-term limit, the president – known to all as Jokowi – is leaving office with enviably high popularity ratings and a track record that includes steady economic growth, infrastructure development, slowed deforestation (though the country has fallen short of targets) and healthcare improvements. But he has also overseen a democratic backsliding. When he first took office, some supporters voiced concern that his principles might even hinder his ability to get things done. In reality, he has not only proved adept at making deals with the old elites but has undermined key institutions and strengthened restrictions on freedom of speech. The final straw, for many of his enthusiastic early supporters and reportedly for cabinet colleagues, has been his electoral manoeuvring.

Jokowi said he was neutral. But it was plain that he had thrown his weight behind Mr Prabowo rather than his own party’s candidate, Ganjar Pranowo. His 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, ran as Mr Prabowo’s vice-president, despite being four years short of the usual minimum age for the role, thanks to a handy ruling from the constitutional court. The chief justice happens to be married to the president’s sister. Many of those who once supported Jokowi have concluded that his priority is his legacy.

Mr Prabowo also benefited from his improbable rebranding from fiery would-be strongman to a cuddly, cat-loving grandfather figure, aided by social media. Half the country’s electorate is under 40; many voters do not remember his past or the days of military dictatorship under his father-in-law, Gen Suharto.

Those who do predict that “winter is coming”. Some suggest that the new president may conclude that he does not need outright autocracy, but can achieve what he wants within the current system. A better cause for optimism may be that Jokowi’s tenure saw the largest student protests since democracy’s return in 1998, prompted by his weakening of the anti-corruption commission and other harsh new laws. His political trajectory is further evidence that the work of defending reform and rights cannot rest on the shoulders of a single leader. But Indonesian democracy appears to have plenty of defenders, including among the young. There is every sign it will need them.

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