Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been accused of being partial to certain candidates despite his earlier pledge to remain neutral in the presidential and general elections scheduled for February 14.
Elected in 2014 and reelected in 2019, Jokowi is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. As an incumbent official and head of state, he is also not allowed to use his office or state resources to benefit a particular candidate.
But observers and opposition groups have noted that Jokowi has been promoting the electoral candidacy of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, whose vice presidential candidate is the son of the president, Gibran Rakabuming Raka.
After two presidential debates in December and January, Jokowi asked the General Election Commission to change the format of the program, a move analysts believe is intended to boost the chances of Prabowo, who failed to deliver a strong performance during the live face-off with other candidates. Jokowi has also been actively visiting provinces delivering cash subsidies, which could have an indirect influence on broadening electoral support for the candidacies of Prabowo and Gibran.
This is not the first time the neutrality of a state official has been questioned. A judicial panel demoted Chief Justice Anwar Usman, Jokowi's brother-in-law, for participating in a controversial court proceeding that lowered the age limit for elected officials from 40 to 35. This ruling, issued days before the registration of election candidates, allowed Jokowi’s 36-year-old son to run for vice president. An ethics panel subsequently concluded that Anwar was “proven to have violated judges’ ethical code specifically the principle of neutrality and integrity as he did not recuse himself.”
Former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, the presidential candidate of the opposition, mentioned the court decision during the first presidential debate, saying that:
Many regulations have been bent according to the interests of those in power. There is one millennial who could be vice president, but there are thousands of other millennials, Gen Z, who care about the nation that are marginalized. When they criticise the government instead they face violence, even tear gas.
In Indonesia, a presidential candidate needs at least 50 percent of votes to be declared winner. If a majority vote is not acquired, a runoff election will be scheduled in June. Prabowo is ahead according to surveys, but his numbers are below the 50 percent threshold. This could be the reason Jokowi has been trying to be more visible with Prabowo.
In an editorial, The Jakarta Post had this reminder for the president:
The genie is out of the bottle and it is probably too late to expect the President to change direction, but we have the moral obligation to remind him to stay neutral in the election and that history will not judge him kindly for interfering with the democratic process.
In the past two decades, we have had a tradition of the incumbent staying neutral in the general election and that good practice should continue.
If not, the future of our democracy is at stake.
Responding to criticisms, Jokowi insisted that he is permitted endorse candidates.
A president is permitted to endorse candidates and take sides, provided that state resources are not utilized in the process.
This statement drew flak from civil society groups. The Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) warned that “this could lead to unfair and undemocratic elections” by encouraging state officials to show “political bias.” The Civil Society Coalition for Clean Elections issued a statement in reaction to the president’s remarks:
This statement poses a significant threat to democratic practices leading up to the voting day on February 14, 2024. Allowing the President and Ministers to openly campaign could lead to conflicts of interest and potential fraudulent practices in the field.
The President’s partiality certainly cannot be taken lightly since the President has full control over defense and security instruments which can direct public support.
The coalition urged Ministers in the Cabinet “to remain professional in carrying out their state duties and to refrain from abusing their power for electoral political interests.”
In an editorial, Tempo news website wrote about the grave consequences if Jokowi continues to act like the “spokesperson” of the Prabowo-Gibran tandem.:
If he continues to not be neutral to ensure victory for Prabowo and his son, Jokowi will lose out in two ways. Firstly, in the second round of votes in June, Prabowo’s share of the vote could collapse as a result of public anger at the head of state’s lack of neutrality. Secondly, Jokowi will be remembered as the worst president since the start of the Reformasi era. Because of these two factors, Jokowi could be consigned to the ash heap of history.