But now, constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, Widodo — widely known as Jokowi — appears reluctant to let go of his sway over Indonesia’s future, say political scientists, watchdog groups and a growing number of the president’s former allies and supporters.
Critics say Widodo has been exerting too much influence ahead of the Feb. 14 election to replace him, trying to swing the contest for Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who has become a close ally. They accuse Widodo of engineering a court decision that cleared the way for his son to run as the vice-presidential candidate with Prabowo. And they say Widodo has been campaigning for Prabowo, even though presidents in Indonesia are not legally allowed to campaign.
Moreover, village officials have reported that they are being pressured to support Prabowo in exchange for resources from the Widodo administration, according to the election watchdog group Perludem. The campaign teams of the two other presidential candidates — former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan — say their volunteers and supporters have been harassed by security forces and stopped from conducting campaign activities. The military and the police have rejected these accusations.
“The situation is indeed unfair,” candidate Ganjar said in an interview. “We’re prepared for it to continue being unfair.”
Rawanda Wandy Tuturoong, who was tapped by the president’s office to respond to questions and is deputy to the chief of staff, said Widodo “wants his legacy to be continued.” Widodo is relying on “his strengths, his capital” to achieve this and has not broken any laws, Tuturoong said.
Widodo’s defenders say he should be allowed to go to great lengths to defend his legacy, which includes efforts to establish an electric-vehicle manufacturing supply chain in Indonesia and an ambitious multibillion-dollar plan to build a new capital city to replace Jakarta.
“Ten years of [Widodo] has been awesome,” said Budi Arie Setiadi, head of Projo, a 7 million-strong group of pro-Widodo volunteers now backing Prabowo. “It must be continued.”
Opinion polls show Prabowo, a former general with a history of alleged human rights abuses, leading the other candidates by 20 points, though he’s not guaranteed to secure the 51 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a runoff. Widodo — who has an approval rating as high 80 percent — will play a deciding role, analysts say. The president has increased public appearances with Prabowo ahead of the vote and recently asserted, with Prabowo at his side, that presidents have the right to campaign on behalf of others, prompting complaints to Indonesia’s electoral oversight board.
His embrace of Prabowo has divided Indonesia’s political elite. It has also ignited fears that democracy could be at risk in one of Asia’s few remaining democratic bright spots.
“What we’re seeing are pretty brazen attacks to democratic norms and institutions,” said Made Supriatma, a visiting fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He said he believes this election is shaping up to be Indonesia’s most unfair since the toppling of dictator Suharto in 1998. Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty International Indonesia, agreed, as did Goenawan Mohamad, founder of the investigative news magazine Tempo and one of Indonesia’s most prominent public intellectuals.
Mohamad supported Widodo in 2014 and 2019, and said he believed until recently that Widodo was the country’s best president. “Suddenly, right at the end,” said Mohamad, 82, “things have gone very wrong.”
Born in a riverside slum, Widodo, 62, worked as a furniture maker before becoming mayor of the Javanese city of Solo and then governor of the Jakarta region. He was known for his down-to-earth style of leadership, often turning up unannounced at markets and mosques to talk to people about everyday issues like the price of rice.
In 2014, he upended Indonesian politics by defeating Prabowo, an establishment figure, in the presidential election. Dressed in traditional Indonesian batik, Widodo was photographed that year for the cover of Time magazine, which called him a “force for democracy.”
Widodo promised reform. But over his two terms, he failed to deliver on many counts, say civil society groups. Despite campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, Widodo weakened the powers of the country’s corruption investigations board. He rolled back environmental and labor protections in a job creation bill, and he abandoned a former ally, a Chinese Christian governor, who was persecuted by conservative Islamic hard-liners, say rights activists.
Tuturoong, the deputy chief of staff, said Widodo had to compromise on his initial campaign promises in order “to build an effective government.”
In his second term, struggling to consolidate power among fractious parties, Widodo brought oligarchs, ex-generals and religious conservatives into his cabinet. Prabowo, whom he had once disavowed, was appointed defense minister. Adding Prabowo to the cabinet, Tuturoong said, was part of an effort to bridge political divides in the face of challenges like the covid-19 pandemic.
Prabowo, 72, served as a high-ranking commander in the Suharto era and was once married to the dictator’s daughter. International human rights organizations and foreign governments have long accused Prabowo of committing egregious human rights abuses under Suharto, alleging that he ordered the kidnapping of student activists and directed the torture and massacre of independence fighters in East Timor and elsewhere.
Prabowo was dishonorably discharged from the army in 1998 but never criminally charged. He sought to mount a political comeback, but after he lost the 2014 and 2019 elections to Widodo, he was widely expected to retire from politics. So when Widodo invited Prabowo into his cabinet, he “almost single-handedly resurrected” Prabowo’s political career, said Supriatma, of the ISEAS.
Although Prabowo was barred for decades from entering the United States because of his alleged involvement in atrocities, he was allowed to visit Washington in 2020 as defense minister. Two years later, he became the first person to declare his presidential candidacy and, in a stunning reversal, pitched himself as an heir to Widodo.
“I really believe we must continue everything that [Widodo] has done,” Prabowo said one recent afternoon to a throng of supporters in Jakarta. “I will continue all his programs. I say that firmly.”
Until a few months ago, Widodo had been expected to support Ganjar, the candidate put forth by his own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). But key disagreements have driven a wedge between the president and the PDI-P.
In April last year, when protests erupted in Muslim-majority Indonesia over whether to allow Israel to participate in a soccer tournament, Widodo publicly disagreed with PDI-P leaders who had sided with the protesters. The demonstrations prompted FIFA to strip Indonesia of its right to host the U-20 Men’s World Cup, a development Widodo called “sad and disappointing.”
Then in October, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court voted 5-4 to allow candidates younger than 40 to run for president or vice president if they had previously been elected to office — a carve-out largely seen as benefiting Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, a 36-year-old mayor. Widodo’s brother-in-law, Chief Justice Anwar Usman, cast a deciding vote. Within days of the decision, Prabowo announced Widodo’s son as his running mate.
Widodo says he had nothing to do with the court’s decision, and Usman has denied any wrongdoing, saying only that he acted according to his “conscience.” But an ethics panel found Usman guilty of “gross violations” and removed him from his role as chief justice. The court’s verdict was allowed to stand.
The PDI-P responded by accusing Widodo of “deserting” the party. Political scientists said it was one of the most overt attempts at dynasty-building in modern Indonesia. Some of Widodo’s most prominent supporters quit positions in the administration, citing their opposition to the court action.
But Budiman Sudjatmiko, a prominent member of the PDI-P who defected to support Prabowo, said, “What’s most important for us now is continuation.” Continuation, he added, of Widodo’s influence.