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Voters in Indonesia, world's 3rd largest democracy, prepare to elect a new president


Voters in the world's third-largest democracy head to the polls tomorrow to elect a new president. Indonesia is also Southeast Asia's largest economy and the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta on what's at stake.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On Sunday, supporters packed the Jakarta Stadium to rally for front-runners Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming, who is mayor of Surakarta city and the son of outgoing President Joko Widodo. Polls show Prabowo with a commanding lead over his rivals, who were both provincial governors. If no candidate gets an absolute majority, there will be a runoff vote in June. This is Indonesia's youngest electorate ever. More than half of its 204 million eligible voters were born after 1980. One of them is first-time voter and Islamic school student Ulfa Nurmaulida.

ULFA NURMAULIDA: (Through interpreter) Mr. Prabowo is cuddly and kind and - sorry, I'm a bit nervous.

KUHN: She says she learns about Prabowo the same way many other young voters do.

NURMAULIDA: (Through interpreter) On social media like TikTok, YouTube and TV.


KUHN: Prabowo's team has packaged him as a jovial, dancing grandpa whose smiling avatar adorns baby blue T-shirts. Erick Thohir is a Prabowo supporter and Indonesia's minister of state-owned enterprises. Prabowo was expected to continue President Joko Widodo's policies, and Thohir likes that.

ERICK THOHIR: I believe in stability and continuity. And if Indonesia not stable also in terms of the politics, I don't think good for the region and also for global geopolitics.

KUHN: Under Widodo - or Jokowi, as he's known - Indonesia's economy has grown at about 5% a year. His infrastructure building and poverty alleviation policies are popular. Jokowi beat Prabowo in 2014 and 2019 elections, but some supporters who once hailed Jokowi as a Democrat are angry because they believe he installed his 36-year-old son as vice presidential candidate. Political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar says Jokowi is tarnishing his own legacy.

DEWI FORTUNA ANWAR: Two things still save Indonesia's position. First is that it has a vibrant civil society, and secondly, that the election has generally been free and fair.

KUHN: But Anwar says that evidence suggests that Jokowi is trying to tip this election.

ANWAR: So you have problems of co-optation and bribery. You have the problem of real intimidation to vote for a particular candidate. This reminds everyone, at least people who remember, of the New Order government.

KUHN: Many first-time voters were born after the 1966-to-1998 New Order government of General Suharto. Many older voters, though, do remember.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: Shouts for reformasi, or reform, go up from students and teachers at Jakarta's Trisakti University. They're gathered by a monument to four students who called for political reform in 1998 and were shot to death by soldiers. Usman Hamid was a Trisakti student then, he's with Amnesty International now.

USMAN HAMID: So this election is an existential moment for the pro-democracy and human rights movement in Indonesia.

KUHN: Indonesia's military sacked Prabowo in 1998 for his role in human rights abuses, including during Indonesia's U.S.-backed invasion of East Timor between 1975 and 1999. Usman Hamid says Prabowo was also implicated in the Trisakti shootings which eventually led to Suharto's downfall.

HAMID: The fact that Indonesia is going to have someone implicated in human rights abuses as the next president is a reflection of Indonesian failure in prosecuting those responsible for crimes committed in the past.

KUHN: Hamid notes that Indonesia is hardly the only country prone to democratic backsliding and authoritarian rulers making a comeback.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.