Indonesian incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures as he greets his supporters during a campaign rally at Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, April 2019
Indonesian incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures as he greets his supporters during a campaign rally at Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, April 2019
Willy Kurniawan / REUTERS

On a sunny afternoon in Yogyakarta, many of the neighborhood women have gathered to share tea, exchange gossip, and select the president of the world’s fourth-largest nation. Whom have they picked? They can’t say: any type of electioneering—even so much as wearing a candidate’s T-shirt—is banned today. Not just at polling sites but throughout Indonesia. But the women find a sly way around the restriction. They hold up their ink-purpled forefingers to indicate that they’ve already voted—and to reveal their choice: “Number One” (that is, the first candidate on the ballot), President Joko Widodo. In case there was any doubt about their meaning, a few subtly angle their fingers toward a mural on the wall, showing all of Indonesia’s past leaders. Widodo (more commonly known by the nickname “Jokowi”) is in the lower right corner, looking slightly bemused to be in the company of such towering figures. Just as he does in real life. And that, perhaps more than for any policy position, is why the women at Voting Station 105 are so smitten by him.

On April 17, Indonesia conducted the largest single-day vote in any nation’s history. There are only two democracies larger than Indonesia’s, and neither has ever done things in such a flash: India’s votes are staggered over the course of six weeks, and the United States (in addition to permitting early voting) refrains from putting two-thirds of the Senate up for contest in the same year as a presidential election. For the first time, Indonesians picked their president, vice president, and members of national, provincial, and local assemblies all at the same time. It could have been a recipe for utter chaos. But it went off with barely a hitch. Although the official results won’t be out until late May, within hours a quick count put Jokowi up by a margin of at least eight percent. His rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, refused to concede; he claimed, without presenting evidence, that he had won with 62 percent of the vote. (Prabowo, because of his ethnically divisive rhetoric and frequently fictitious utterances, is often referred to as “Indonesia’s Donald Trump.”) There is little doubt, however, that Jokowi has netted a second five-year term. What does that mean for his nation and its place in the world?


Indonesia always seems to be punching below its weight class, a country with enormous global potential that is just barely out of reach. It has Southeast Asia’s largest population, largest economy, and largest geographic area. It is also home to more Muslims than any other country on the planet—putting the lie to any notions of incompatibility between genuinely representative government and Islam. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis referred to it as a “fulcrum of the Indo-Pacifiic area.”

In domestic terms, perhaps the most important aspect of Jokowi’s victory is what it prevented: had Prabowo won the election, he might have undone much of the hard-earned progress of the past 20 years. Since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia has become a stable, open, and free society, where the benefits of national prosperity are shared more fairly throughout the populace. Under Suharto’s “New Order,” a sliver of elite families enjoyed outrageous wealth. Prabowo—a son-in-law of the dictator during these years—is reported to have amassed a fortune of $160 million; Suharto himself has been described as the world’s greatest kleptocrat, with a treasure chest at the time of his downfall of up to $35 billion. In the year of Suharto’s fall, the average Indonesian household’s monthly income was $34. Jokowi is the nation’s first leader not to hail from the traditional ruling class: before entering politics, he was a simple exporter of furniture, with a passion for heavy metal music and a program of walking through humble neighborhoods to ask the orang biasa (“everyday people”) what they wanted their government to do better.

Moreover, a Prabowo victory might have brought back the bad old days of brutal repression, bloody counterinsurgency campaigns, and rampant abuse of human rights. Prabowo himself was deeply implicated in a variety of offenses, ranging from the disappearance and presumed execution of student activists, to war crimes in East Timor and Papua (the Indonesian western half of New Guinea), to an attempted coup d’état. A hallmark of the Prabowo presidential campaign was the use of inflammatory language to stir up antipathy against the nation’s Christian and Chinese populations. He drew support from the country’s more extremist Islamist groups, even promising to rehabilitate the leader of the violent and thuggish Islamic Defenders Front. Such tactics likely stem from opportunism rather than ideological conviction: Prabowo’s mother and two siblings are Christian. But this did not stop him from openly disputing Jokowi’s status as a “true” Muslim—prompting the president to pick an Islamic cleric as his running mate and even to make a pilgrimage to Mecca just days before the election.


Although Prabowo’s anti-Chinese rhetoric might have appealed to some in Washington, sober-minded American strategists should welcome Jokowi’s reelection.  The United States is increasingly interested in bringing Indonesia more closely into the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific, and rightly so: with over 13,000 islands stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, Indonesia provides a wealth of possibilities for access and cooperation. At least three combined air force/navy/army bases—at Natuna Besar, Biak, and Morotai—are located tantalizingly close to the region’s most contested flash point in the South China Sea. In February, the United States delivered 24 F-16 fighter jets to Indonesia, and last year it held its sixth iteration of Cope West (a bilateral tactical fighter aircraft exercise) in Indonesian airspace. The U.S. Navy has been working with its Indonesian counterpart on maritime domain awareness, and the U.S. Army is hoping for Indonesian participation in its major Pacific drill (Defender Pacific) for 2020.

Relations between the United States and Indonesia have gotten progressively warmer over the past decade, and this trend is likely to continue.

Relations between the United States and Indonesia have gotten progressively warmer over the past decade, and this trend is likely to continue. The thaw (after a long freeze during Suharto’s twilight years, when military cooperation was cut off) began in earnest under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (generally referred to as “SBY”), and deepened with the election of U.S. President Barack Obama—who went to elementary school in Jakarta and was able to greet interlocutors in only somewhat rusty Bahasa. Part of Jokowi’s popularity may be related to the Obama aura (the two men have a passing physical resemblance, which seems to be played up on campaign posters). A wall painting in Yogyakarta proudly shouts out, “Pasti bisa, Indonesia!”—“Yes We Can, Indonesia!” Under Jokowi, the United States became Indonesia’s top supplier of military hardware.

But American planners should be wary of expecting Jokowi to move toward a close partnership, let alone anything resembling an alliance. In a televised debate on national security, Jokowi said that he foresees no external threat to the nation for the next 20 years and consequently sees no need for a more robust military posture. Funding for the armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia) remains relatively low: less than one percent of GDP every year since the fall of the Suharto regime. During the same period, China (the only nation that could conceivably threaten Indonesia) spent about two percent of its much larger annual GDP on the military. (By way of comparison, neighboring Malaysia spent about 1.5 percent, and tiny-but-rich Singapore spent more than three percent.)

This relative lack of military expenditures is not a reflection of unquestioned civilian dominance over the armed forces. After having led the nation without challenge from 1965 to 1998, retired military officers still play an outsize role in politics. In the past six years alone, retired armed forces chiefs have served as Jokowi’s predecessor (two-term president SBY), chief of staff (Moeldoko; like many Indonesians, including the late ruler Suharto, he goes by just one name), and one of his key ministers (Wiranto, who was also a serious rival for presidential office before joining the Jokowi bandwagon). Unlike six of its neighbors, Indonesia has no territorial claim in the disputed South China Sea—but Jokowi has strongly resisted Chinese incursions into its fishing zones off the Natuna Islands chain. Absent a threat to the Natunas, it is unlikely that Indonesia will join any anti-Chinese coalition.

Indonesia’s reluctance to step up its military involvement stems not from any inherent antimilitary bias under Jokowi but from a long tradition of nonalignment. In India—indeed, in almost all other countries—such Cold War–era language seems quaintly outdated. In Indonesia, the site of the 1955 Bandung Conference where the Non-Aligned Movement was forged, it is still de rigueur. When asked to describe their nation’s national security strategy, military officers and civilian bureaucrats alike go back to a formulation called Mendayung antara dua karang (“Rowing between two reefs”), citing the words of founding Prime Minister Mohammad Hatta: “The best policy to adopt is one which does not make us the object of an international conflict. On the contrary, we must remain the subject who reserves the right to decide our own destiny.” This policy remains unchanged since Hatta made it—in 1948.

Perhaps most important of all, such matters are a world away from the one inhabited by the orang biasa who just voted Jokowi a second term. When asked about the issues on which they’d be voting, the housewives at the Yogyakarta polling site spoke of the price of rice, wheat, chili, and cooking oil. A first-time candidate for the legislature, Murdodo, mentioned “social issues”—but by this he meant whether an Indromaret (the local version of a 7-Eleven) would be permitted to open next door to the traditional bazaar. Indonesia’s GDP per capita has risen sixfold since the fall of Suharto, and most Indonesians don’t want to return power to the dictator’s kinsman. That, more than any facet of faith or geopolitics, accounts for Jokowi’s success.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now