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Presidential politics heats up in Indonesia

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo talks with locals during a visit to inspect a door to door mass vaccination program in Tarakan, North Kalimantan province, Indonesia, 19 October 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

In Brief

The past year, the seventh year of Joko Widodo’s presidency, has been notable for two trends: the further entrenching of the president’s political position and the continuing reversal of democratic and human rights reforms. Jokowi is determined to avoid being a lame-duck president in his second term. The delays and disruption that COVID-19 has wrought on his ambitious development agenda have intensified his resolve to maximise his authority and limit sources of resistance.


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Jokowi has achieved this by enlarging and solidifying his ruling coalition, which added an eighth party, giving it a sweeping majority of 82 per cent of seats in the national parliament and leaving just two opposition parties. Accommodating all the coalition parties and their demands for a share of power has led Jokowi to greatly expand the number of deputy ministers. Parties are seeking not just influence over policies, but also access to resources and patronage opportunities for their supporters in the run up to the 2024 parliamentary and presidential elections.

Not content with a massive majority, some of those close to Jokowi sought to wrest control of the opposition Democrat Party (PD). In early 2021, the head of Jokowi’s presidential staff, ex-general Moeldoko, launched a clumsy takeover of PD. Amid widespread criticism of the manoeuvre, the government eventually rejected Moeldoko’s claim to leadership, a decision upheld in subsequent court cases. While Jokowi denied any role in the challenge, he stood to benefit if Moeldoko controlled PD and could easily have halted the takeover attempt had he wanted.

Critics of the government are often subject to cyber retaliation and legal action. Outspoken commentators and NGOs have their social media accounts hacked or targeted by trolls. An analysis of cyber intimidation in 2021 found that much of this activity could be traced back to government supporters or key figures in the coalition. Politicians and ministers have also began suing those who accuse them of impropriety. Many civil society groups admit that they feel under greater pressure from the state than at any time in the post-Suharto era.

Jokowi and his coalition partners have been preoccupied not just with the remaining two years of this presidential term, but also with the remainder of the decade. They have been prepared to countenance options that are contrary to democratic principles. Indonesia’s constitution specifies that presidents have a maximum of two five-year terms. Jokowi’s second term will expire in October 2024.

For much of 2021 coalition parties ruminated on possibilities for either extending the life of the current government by pushing back the next presidential election to 2027, or by amending the constitution to allow for a third term. The main argument for extending the Jokowi presidency is that COVID-19 has greatly disrupted the economy and society since 2020 and the nation needs political stability to return to pre-pandemic growth levels. Jokowi was coy about these proposals but did not quash them, no doubt calculating that being longer in office may help secure his place as a president of historical significance.

Jokowi’s coalition partners hoped an extended term would help them better prepare for the next election, given the adverse impact that COVID-19 has had on their ability to raise money and prepare their campaigns. They were also aware that Jokowi was, by far, the most popular politician in the country, with approval ratings ranging from 50 to 60 per cent, and were keen to take advantage of this.

In late January 2022,  government parties abandoned their campaign for a seven-year term and decided that the presidential and legislative elections would be held on schedule on 14 February 2024; the issue of a third term remains an outside possibility, with about 40 per cent of the public approving of Jokowi continuing in office beyond 2024.

Aside from the length of Jokowi’s incumbency, coalition parties have also been engrossed in planning for who might run for president in 2024. Most attention has been directed to Jokowi’s former two-time rival and now Defence Minister, Prabowo Subianto, who appears keen on a further bid. For much of the past year, his party Gerindra and the coalition’s largest member, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) have talked up a possible joint ticket between Prabowo and Puan Maharani, the speaker of parliament and daughter of former president and PDI-P chair, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

While Prabowo currently has the highest electability of any potential candidate, Puan’s rock-bottom popularity drags down their combined figure. How Prabowo and PDI-P resolve this dilemma will be an issue to watch in the next year, as the former wants PDI-P’s electoral clout but the latter has no other obvious candidate within its ranks.

The most serious challenge to Prabowo comes not from within the coalition but from three governors: Anies Baswedan in Jakarta, Central Java’s Ganjar Pranowo and Ridwan Kamil from West Java. Unlike the septuagenarian Prabowo, all three governors are relatively young, forward thinking and have good approval ratings. But all face similar hurdles. Neither Anies nor Ridwan belong to a party. Ganjar, who is PDI-P veteran, has fallen out with the all-powerful Megawati and thus has no prospect of endorsement. Each needs to find enough support from parties in order to nominate.

The government has ensured that none of the three will have the advantages of incumbency in the election run-up. All end their terms this year, but a new law stipulates that gubernatorial elections will be delayed till late 2024. This allows the government to appoint caretaker governors, quite possibly with political connections to coalition parties. Though the government argues this creates a more orderly political system, in reality it is driven by partisan interests and constitutes another setback for democracy.

Greg Fealy is Emeritus Professor of Indonesian Politics at the Department of Political and Social Change, The Australian National University.

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