Indonesia: The Long Road of Democracy in the Land of "Unity in Diversity"

Bromo in Surabaya. / Pedro Fuentetaja
Bromo in Surabaya. / Pedro Fuentetaja
Presidential elections will put to the test the model of coexistence, in the most influential state in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia: The Long Road of Democracy in the Land of "Unity in Diversity"

On February 14th, presidential elections will be held in the Republic of Indonesia, a country located in the far southeastern part of Asia, between Asia and Oceania. It is composed of more than 17,000 islands and is home to nearly 279 million people, of which 72%, or over 200 million, practice the Islamic religion, making it the world's most populous country with a Muslim majority that coexists with other religious minorities such as Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists, animists, and others, reflecting its rich historical past. The official language is Bahasa, but Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, and various regional languages are also spoken. The country's motto, in ancient Javanese, is "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," which translates to "unity in diversity."

In this complex and diverse mosaic of cultures, more than 205 million citizens are called to vote to choose the new president of the country and his running mate, who will serve as vice president. The current outgoing president, Joko Widodo, is widely popular for his leadership but is unable to run for a third term according to the Indonesian Constitution. Widodo, a middle-class businessman, was the first president in the democratic era who did not come from the Jakarta elite nor had ties to the repressive era of President Suharto. He pledged to expand rights, combat corruption, boost the economy, and refrain from building a family dynasty, stating that "such dynasties had overshadowed the country's politics, and still do."

In terms of his political career, he served as the mayor of Surakarta in Central Java, where he became popular for implementing a healthcare system that benefited a large portion of the population. His party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), nominated him as the candidate for governor of Jakarta in 2012. He won the elections and became governor, implementing significant reforms in the financial sector and public transportation. What made him more widely known were his impromptu visits to poor communities, personally overseeing government support programs.

This closeness to citizens led Widodo to win the general elections in 2014 as the PDI-P candidate and secure his re-election in 2019. During this period, the policy of infrastructure development (many funded by the influential Chinese community in the country), human capital formation, and legislative simplification to facilitate and promote investments continued. Additionally, the capital was relocated to Kalimantan (Nusantara)[i]

The news candidates

However, there are other aspects that could overshadow his administration, such as the appointment of Prabowo Subianto as Defense Minister, who has a controversial human rights record. Some also perceive his acceptance of his 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming, the current mayor of Solo and a PDI-P member, as the running mate of the 72-year-old Prabowo Subianto from the Gerindra party, which is competing with the PDI-P in the elections, as an interference in the upcoming elections. This suggests, or at least gives the impression, that the president has exerted his influence.

In October of last year, three presidential and vice-presidential pairs were registered with the General Election Commission, and these are the ones that will compete in the upcoming 2024 elections.

Candidates. / Pedro Fuentetaja
Candidates. / Pedro Fuentetaja

At present, and according to polls, the Prabowo-Gibran pair garners more support than other coalitions, positioning them better to win the elections. However, as the campaign gains momentum, Widodo's favoritism could have repercussions, potentially leading to a second-round scenario. If no candidate secures the votes of more than half of the 205 million eligible voters, a runoff will be held on June 26, which currently seems unlikely.

Historical context

A bit of history: Indonesia's cultural diversity is a product of its location, intricate history, and spice trade. The islands forming present-day Indonesia are very ancient. In 1890, the Java Man's skeleton, dating back over a million years, was discovered in the Solo region. During that time, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali were connected to the Asian continent as sea levels were lower, facilitating the migration of early populations to these regions. The first civilization in the area dates back to 1000 B.C., with origins in Vietnam and northern China, manifesting through constructions, crafts, and rituals in Java, Bali, and Sulawesi.

Trade strengthened the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism, spreading across the archipelago, leaving notable remnants like the Borobudur and Prambanan temples on the island of Java. Bali is also an example of the strong influence of Indian culture. European trade began when the Portuguese landed in the Moluccas archipelago, known as the Spice Islands, and the island of Flores, where 70% of the current population is predominantly Christian and Catholic. Spaniards, English, and Dutch coveted the region, but the Dutch ultimately prevailed, creating the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and maintaining their presence in Indonesia until the mid-20th century.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam spread along trade routes, influenced by Indonesian leaders who were Muslims, aided by the fall of the Hindu Majapahit Empire. Bali has been a Hindu territory since then. In 1945, Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands, leading to a multi-year war of independence. In 1949, the Netherlands recognized independence, and the country became a republic. Cultural diversity and social disparities plunged the new independent state into chaos. In the 1955 elections, Sukarno[ii], a Marxist and anti-imperialist, was elected, but he decided to step down in 1965 after a failed coup. General Suharto, his successor, was chosen by the Congress in 1968. Favoritism, corruption, and nepotism marked the authoritarian regime. By the late 20th century, the precarious economic situation, student rebellion, and international pressure forced Suharto to resign in 1998. In 2004, the first direct presidential elections were held, marking the country's economic stability recovery to the present day.

Geographic and political situation

In terms of geopolitics, Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago with over 17,000 islands. It is located in the far southeastern part of Asia, geographically linking with the Australian continent. The country has a land area of 2,027,087 square kilometers and shares land borders with Malaysia, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea. Additionally, it has maritime boundaries with India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and East Timor.

Indonesia in geographic context. / Council Foreign Ralations
Indonesia in geographic context. / Council Foreign Ralations

Indonesia boasts a coastline of 54,000 kilometers, the second-longest in the world after Canada. The main islands or island groups in terms of population and importance are Java (home to 56.1% of the population), Sumatra (21.68%), Sulawesi (7.36%), Borneo (Kalimantan, 6.15%), Papua, and the Moluccas archipelago. Noteworthy is the chain of islands formed by Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores, east of Java, which are less populated.

Being a mountainous country with around 400 volcanoes, especially in Java, of which 100 are active, Indonesia is situated in the so-called "Ring of Fire," making it susceptible to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The archipelago has an equatorial, monsoonal climate with high temperatures and minimal seasonal variations.

Indonesia has significant natural resources, including oil and gas, minerals, and agricultural raw materials, with the third-largest tropical forest on the planet. Agriculture, livestock farming, and forestry are prominent activities. As a subtropical country of extensive size, Indonesia is one of the largest producers of cereals (rice, corn, and cassava), rubber (second-largest producer globally), cocoa (second-largest producer), and coffee (third-largest producer). It is also a major producer of palm oil (world's largest).

Recently, a substantial gas reserve was discovered in the South Andaman Basin, the world's second-largest in deep waters, and another in the Kutei Basin. These findings are crucial for Indonesia's energy transition towards sustainability and decarbonization, not only for the country but for Southeast Asia as a whole.

Jakarta is a significant coal consumer with a large fleet of coal-fired power plants. Gas, along with a massive increase in renewable energy sources, is expected to ensure the country's energy security as it aims to play a more prominent role in the global gas market. In this context, Indonesia has strengthened ties with Japan and South Korea while also looking towards the EU.

Apart from being a potential market for Spain, Indonesia is essential for our country due to cooperation relationships in the aerospace sector. It's worth noting that in 1974, Construcciones Aeronáuticas S.A. (now part of Airbus Industries)[iii] signed an agreement with the Indonesian[iv]state-owned aerospace company PT Nurtanio, linked to the Indonesian Army, for the manufacturing of Spanish transport planes (C212 and CN235, among other models)[v]. Of the planes produced, units were sold in South Korea and Papua New Guinea, as well as other countries in the region. Currently, there are 76 Spanish companies in the country, with Airbus, Repsol, Indra, Gamesa, TSK, Técnicas Reunidas, ACS, Navantia, Expal, Instalaza, Meliá, Mapfre, La Liga, and SOXNA among them.

Main Risks: Deforestation for agricultural purposes has made Indonesia one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters. The predominantly coastal population is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to rising sea levels, exemplified by the relocation of the capital Jakarta, home to 10 million people, to Nusantara in Kalimantan. Bold political action is required to reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience.

Furthermore, agriculture, mariculture, and fishing are crucial livelihoods for many Indonesians and could be severely affected by climate change. In 2019, Indonesia accounted for an estimated 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Coal is a major emitter in Indonesia, with over 30 coal-fired power plants planned or under construction.

In the realm of jihadist terrorism, Indonesia faces challenges, primarily the threat of radical Islamist-inspired terrorism. Counter-terrorism operations need to broaden their focus beyond merely apprehending leaders, prioritizing the dismantling of initiatives that continue to maintain resilience, along with counterintelligence operations.

Summary: The upcoming presidential elections will test Indonesia's political stability in recent years, though significant risks are not anticipated. All candidates have indicated they will continue the policies of Jokowi, ensuring continuity in the country's politics. 

Globally, the competition between China and the United States will continue to shape Asia-Pacific geopolitics. It is expected that both Beijing and Washington will increase their activity in the region to expand their areas of influence. Indonesia will strengthen its position in an increasingly polarized region as it assumes the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Nevertheless, relations between Indonesia and China will remain intense. The Chinese community in Indonesia, constituting around 3% of the population and historically persecuted, is now a key economic driver for the country. Both nations will continue building a shared model for common development. The significant opportunities arising from this process are not only beneficial to China and Indonesia but also extend to Asia and the world.

Indonesia, as the largest economy in Southeast Asia, projects itself as one of the major economic powers in the future. With a young and dynamic population and increasing purchasing power, it becomes an attractive market for foreign investments, reinforcing its influence in the region. Bilateral relations, such as those with Spain in the aerospace sector, underscore the importance of strategic alliances for Indonesia, showcasing its active participation in the global geopolitical scene.

Indonesia, with its unique geography, cultural diversity, and economic position, plays a key role in regional and global geopolitics. It is an influential actor in matters of security, trade, and international cooperation. Its territorial waters are crucial for navigation and trade, and the presence of regional and global powers in its maritime borders underscores its importance in the geopolitical dynamics of Southeast Asia.

The ethnic and cultural diversity reflected in the population distribution across islands like Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Bali, Lombok, or Flores serves as an example of "unity in diversity" for many countries worldwide. It plays a geopolitical role by influencing internal cohesion. However, with a predominantly coastal population, Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, necessitating emissions reduction and simultaneously strengthening climate resilience.

On another note, although terrorist organizations have significantly weakened in recent years due to the fall of many of their leaders in counter-terrorism operations, they retain the tools needed to survive and resurface in the future. @mundiario


(1) Yakarta, home to over 10 million people, is sinking at one of the fastest rates on the planet, a consequence of excessive groundwater extraction, rapid urbanization, and rising sea levels. The city is currently 40% below sea level and sinking at an average rate of 7.5 centimeters per year.

(2) Just before achieving independence, Sukarno presented a doctrine for a young, diverse, and heterogeneous state, the "Pancasila," to reconcile differences among Indonesians. These principles, transcending even Islam, remained the official ideology throughout the 20th century and have persisted with difficulties to the present day. Indonesia spearheaded the Bandung Conference in 1955 and facilitated the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement.

(3) In the 1970s, Yusuf Habibie, President of the National Aeronautics Company of Indonesia, had connections with the President of Construcciones Aeronáuticas S.A, Enrique de Guzmán. After working together in Germany, Habibie and Guzmán established commercial relations that led to licensing and aircraft manufacturing agreements between CASA and PTN/PTDI.

(4) Acknowledgments: Thanks to Don Fulgencio Fernández López, as well as Don José Luis Molero and Don Nicolas Barraso from the Materials Department of CASA, for their work overthe years.