Senior Director, Southeast Asia, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
September 05, 2023
On February 14 next year, Indonesia will hold presidential elections. This looms as a consequential vote not just for Indonesians but for the United States. After all, Indonesia is a major player in the critical Indo-Pacific region. It’s the world’s fourth most populous country, third largest democracy, sixteenth largest economy, and largest Muslim-majority nation.
Leading candidate and current defense minister Prabowo Subianto visited the United States in August, finalizing agreements to purchase fighter jets and helicopters, meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other officials, and advocating for closer ties between the two countries.
Prabowo is one of three major candidates for Indonesia’s presidency and is campaigning to succeed current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who is completing his second five-year term but is constitutionally prohibited from running again. Prabowo unsuccessfully ran against Jokowi in 2014 and 2019 and the latest polling and party dynamics likely have him thinking the third time may be the charm.
His opponents include Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. Ganjar belongs to the same party as Jokowi, but Prabowo leads a broad coalition and Jokowi (who has not made a formal endorsement, but whose popularity is at a sky-high 79%) has signaled that Prabowo is his preferred choice to continue his policies.
While a key aspect of Jokowi’s initial election in 2014 was his status as an outsider to the Indonesian political and military machine, Prabowo is an insider’s insider. His former father-in-law was President Suharto, who led Indonesia for 32 years under military dictatorship. Prabowo’s father served as Suharto’s minister for trade and minister for research and technology.
Prabowo himself served in the military, rising to the rank of army lieutenant general and leading Indonesia’s special forces. Accusations of human rights violations in this role prevented his entry into the United States for many years – a ban that has been lifted in his current capacity as defense minister. Also active in business, Prabowo’s Nusantara Group is a conglomerate that reportedly controls 27 companies ranging from palm oil, natural gas, and coal, to fisheries, paper, and pulp.
So what is the significance of his recent visit? First, Indonesia is looking to modernize its military, with U.S. support underscored by a fulsome joint statement issued after Prabowo’s meeting with Austin at the Pentagon. During his trip, Prabowo witnessed the signing of an agreement in St. Louis with Boeing to purchase 24 F-15EX fighter jets and was on hand in Washington for a sales agreement for up to 24 Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky S-70M Black Hawk helicopters. These acquisitions will deepen interoperability with the U.S. and expand options for joint exercises. It’s a public win for him in his role as defense minister.
Jokowi has gone to great lengths to appear even-handed in the conflict, visiting both Ukraine and Russia last year and offering to mediate between the two countries. Prabowo may also have changed his stance following a much-criticized peace plan he offered at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore in June, from which Jokowi publicly distanced himself.
Third, this trip was an opportunity to advocate for his domestic priorities through increased U.S.-Indonesia engagement. This includes job creation and economic opportunities via cooperation in food security (the prevention of stunting in Indonesia’s children through malnutrition has long been part of Prabowo’s platform), international education exchange, technological innovations, and more.
In the lead up to next February’s election, the U.S. Chamber and AmCham Indonesia will examine the state of play and candidate platforms in-depth at the October 24 annual U.S.-Indonesia Investment Summit in Jakarta. Five months out, there is still time for election dynamics to change. A candidate could drop out and join one of the two remaining candidate’s tickets as vice president. Scandals could emerge. Jokowi could make a surprise endorsement. But for the moment, Prabowo seems to have achieved what he set out to do with his U.S. visit and returns home still the front-runner.