Is hypocrisy at play in Indonesia's elections?

Indonesia is holding the biggest one-day election in the world today, where more than 200 million voters – more than half of them under the age of 40 – will choose one of three candidates to replace the current President Joko Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’.

Jokowi, who is hugely popular among Indonesians, has not officially endorsed anyone to succeed him, but he is widely perceived to be backing frontrunner Prabowo Subianto, the current Defence Minister. Prabowo’s running mate is Jokowi’s son, and Prabowo himself is the son-in-law of former dictator Muhammed Soeharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years, beginning in the late 1960s, and instigated mass atrocities that have been described as genocide.

Also on the ballot are Anies Baswedan, a former academic and the ex-governor of Jakarta, and Ganjar Pranowo, a public servant who was Governor of Central Java.

In the world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia’s young demographic will be key to the outcome of an election focussed on issues including the cost of living, employment and democratic decline, as well as foreign policy and international relations amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

But with Prabowo’s own shady history of human rights abuses and Indonesia’s failure to ratify key international conventions on genocide and refugees is thrusting the country’s history and candidates into the spotlight, and raising questions about its credibility in speaking out on some geopolitical challenges.

Policy hypocrisy

As the world’s largest Muslim majority country, Indonesia is a vocal supporter of Palestine and all three candidates have taken a pro-Palestinian stance in their respective foreign policy platforms.   

‘Historically, Palestine has always been an important issue to Indonesians, and the current situation in Gaza makes the discussion more crucial,’ said Pieter Pandie, a researcher from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia. But he says that on the one hand, while public support for Palestine is high, the refugee crisis that stems in part from the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh is fuelling tensions.

‘The Rohingya issue is quite a controversy to Indonesians because of its impact, specifically to people in Aceh,’ he said.

More than 1,500 Rohingya refugees have arrived by boat in Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, since last November. The UN describes the Rohingya as ‘the most persecuted people in the world’, and many Rohingya Muslims have experienced decades of violence and discrimination, particularly in Myanmar. The UN said this latest influx of refugees is the biggest in eight years.

 

Indonesia is known for its ‘free and active’ foreign policy, which maintains ‘freedom’ through a policy of nonalignment with any great power, while taking an ‘active’ role in humanitarian crises or conflicts to ‘promote a peaceful and just global order’.

‘No candidate has made a significant change from that position,’ said Pandie.

Rather, Prabowo has promised to continue Jokowi’s anti-democratic policies which experts say could harm refugee rights and threaten Indonesia’s democracy.

While public support for Palestine is high in Indonesia, the refugee crisis that stems in part from the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh is fuelling tensions.

No rights for refugees

As the Defence Minister, Prabowo has campaigned for strengthening diplomatic support for Palestinian independence and sovereignty and has repeatedly called for a ceasefire. If elected, he has promised to strengthen state and military capacities.  

But Atika Yuanita Paraswaty, the chair of the refugee rights group Suaka, says there has been almost no progress in protecting the rights of refugees in Indonesia during Jokowi’s 10 year presidency.

‘If [a Prabowo government] strengthens the border, it means they also will restrict the rights [of people] to seek asylum,’ she said.

Indonesia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, which outlines refugees’ rights and the legal obligations of states to protect them. Asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia are not permitted to work and receive no social benefits from the government.

Asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia are not permitted to work and receive no social benefits from the government.

In response to the mass arrival of Rohingya refugees last year, Prabowo said that Indonesia must ‘prioritize its citizens’.

Atika says this is hypocritical as Prabowo had previously welcomed Palestinian students and given them scholarships to study in Indonesia.

Ganjar is the only candidate who has said he would ratify the Refugee Convention, but he has yet to outline a plan to create legal protections for refugees.

Easy target

Despite its long history of solidarity with Palestine, Indonesia could not join South Africa’s genocide case against Israel because it has not ratified the Genocide Convention. Indonesia does not recognize the state of Israel but it maintains an economic relationship through the import of weapons and the use of Israeli spyware.

Sri Lestari 'Ayu’ Wahyuningroem, a politicial science professor at the University of Pembangunan National Veteran in Jakarta, says this is because Indonesia has many of its own unresolved cases of crimes against humanity.

Between 1965-66, at least 500,000 people were murdered by the Indonesian army, militias and vigilantes in an anti-communist purge. In 2016, the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) found Indonesia guilty of crimes against humanity under Soeharto’s rule, with the US, the UK and Australia all complicit in the crimes. To date, the Indonesian government has refused to implement the IPT’s recommendations for investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of the crimes.

‘Politically, the government does not want to throw itself in and become an easy target for accusations of genocide,’ said Ayu. ‘That is why, in my opinion, the government is reluctant to ratify the Genocide Convention.’

Prabowo has also been accused of being involved in other rights abuses in Papua and Timor Leste, as well as the enforced disappearance of pro-democracy activists in 1998. Prabowo denies any wrongdoing and has not been tried in court.

‘Politically, the government does not want to throw itself in and become an easy target for accusations of genocide.’

In early 2023, Jokowi acknowledged past incidents of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, allegedly implicating Prabowo, and vowed to restore the rights of victims outside of the judicial system.

Ayu sees this as a way for Jokowi to erase Prabowo’s past crimes and prevent a genocide trial from taking place. She says that until Indonesia ratifies conventions on genocide and refugees, its authority to speak out on other ongoing crises could be questioned.  

‘Indonesia will lose its credibility to speak about Myanmar or Israel,’ she said.

The current electoral rules require a candidate to win at least 50 per cent of the national vote to avoid a runoff in June. A preliminary result is likely to be announced on the evening of 14 February, but the official results could take more than a month.