The Indonesian Election: Implications for the UK

The third time has proven to be a charm for Prabowo Subianto. After failed presidential runs in 2014 and 2019, the controversial former military general has successfully transformed his image from a fiery nationalist to a softer grandfatherly figure. As of February 14th, he is the presumptive next president of Indonesia, even if results are only certified in a month’s time. 

Prabowo’s past is murky and controversial. Due to alleged human rights abuses conducted under Indonesia’s dictatorship period, Prabowo was expelled from the army and until recently barred from entering the United States. This election’s context was unique given that the outgoing two-term president Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, remains hugely popular in Indonesia. His implicit backing certainly helped Prabowo’s chances of election; with Prabowo positioning himself as Jokowi’s continuity candidate.

Jokowi’s backing is also evident in Prabowo’s choice of running mate; the now presumptive vice-president being Gibran, Jokowi’s eldest son. Democratic norms were skewed for this vice-presidential choice as Indonesia’s constitution specifies candidates must be over 40 years old, while Gibran is 36. A contentious constitutional ruling handily allowed Gibran to present himself, from a court headed by none other than Jokowi’s brother-in-law. All this paints a rather difficult picture about the health of Indonesian democracy in this election cycle, even if broad principles have generally been upheld.

The mantle and responsibility of the presidential office in Indonesia is as enormous as the country itself; from east to west Indonesia stretches a distance roughly equivalent to the distance between the United Kingdom and Afghanistan. As the world’s third largest democracy and the world’s largest majority-Muslim country, the stakes are high. Indonesia has the largest population in South-East Asia, is a rapidly growing G20 economy, and is both an active player and subject in the growing US-China competition.      

What does all of this mean for the UK?

The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh named the Indo-Pacific as a key geographic priority, having ‘delivered’ the original ambition for a tilt and now pushing for “long-term strategic footing”. Developments in the Indo-Pacific, in which Indonesia is an important player, have an outsized impact on the global economy, supply chains, and strategic stability. An agreement negotiated in 2022 by then-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss defines the relationship between the UK and Indonesia as a ‘strategic partnership’, and there are a number of factors to consider when exploring the future of this partnership.

The first is how Prabowo will conduct his foreign policy. While on the domestic front he announces a continuation of the outgoing Jokowi’s policies, internationally Prabowo will likely take a broader view of the world beyond Indonesia. Indonesia’s traditionally independent and non-aligned foreign policy will continue, albeit with an unpredictable edge brought by Prabowo. The key domain will likely be in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where Indonesia traditionally holds a leading role, but one which has been neglected in recent years by the domestically-focused Jokowi administration. As ASEAN continues to face a succession of regional tensions, from overlapping claims in the South China Sea, to the civil war in Myanmar, Indonesia under Prabowo has the potential to take a more active role in regional security affairs. 

A potentially more active foreign policy role for Indonesia will likely impact the UK’s engagement with Indonesia and the broader Indo-Pacific. This comes with the possibility of greater UK-Indonesia defence cooperation, at a time when the UK, and Western allies, are desperately searching for partners in the region and opportunities to strengthen their own defensive capabilities. 

Indonesia’s handling of China going forwards will also be something to watch. Indonesia’s economic ties with China are expected to reach USD 100 billion in the next few years, while it also tries to resist its political influence. Under the new leadership, Indonesia is likely to maintain its traditional non-aligned position between the United States and China. The clearest example of this is last year’s decision to politely turn down an invitation to join BRICS, the economic bloc sometimes seen as Chinese-led. Indonesia buys some defence equipment from the United States but remains generally wary of becoming over-reliant on the United States for security, and will certainly stay on the same course of attempting to balance both powers.

As for his personal traits Prabowo is a fluent English speaker having grown up in London, Zurich, and Kuala Lumpur, but in a fiery nationalist tradition will be sensitive to any perceived slights by diplomats or other leaders. He is also highly unpredictable, as exemplified by his 2023 proposal of a peace plan between Russia and Ukraine, presented in his personal capacity at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. This proposal was quickly shut down by the Ukrainians, yet Indonesia is keen to end fighting in Ukraine due to the economic effects of decreasing grain and fertiliser imports. Indonesia cannot be considered an ally to Ukraine, and failed to join the western-led sanctions regime against Russia. Outgoing president Jokowi instead described Indonesia as a “bridge of peace” between Russia and Ukraine, a policy rhetoric that will continue under Prabowo. This runs in opposition to the UK’s own strong support for Ukraine, and underscores the position of many emerging powers that seek to end the war soon. This will certainly be a sticking point in the UK-Indonesia relationship going forward. 

Finally, the economic and geopolitical value of Indonesia’s markets make it a highly valuable strategic partner for the UK. Indonesia’s strength in green commodities and dominant position in nickel make it an attractive free trade agreement (FTA) partner. Indonesia currently provides roughly half the world’s nickel, a critical metal to produce both renewable energy sources and electric vehicle batteries. The Economist estimates that by 2030 Indonesia could be the world’s fourth-largest producer of green commodities. The outgoing president Jokowi has successfully increased Indonesia’s production of higher value products beyond raw nickel ore, and Prabowo is likely to continue this policy if not extend it to other metals such as tin or bauxite. The UK will need to position itself as a valuable partner to Prabowo’s government in order to reap the benefits of these burgeoning markets. The US and Indonesia are currently negotiating an FTA, and securing such an agreement for the UK would cement views of a ‘Global Britain’ in a post-Brexit environment. Crucial in such an agreement would be these green commodities and critical minerals, alongside issues around palm oil and deforestation that have long plagued EU-Indonesia FTA negotiations.

In sum, under the presumptive new president Prabowo, Indonesia is likely to take a slightly more active foreign policy role that will impact the UK’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific,  not least through the possibilities of greater defence cooperation, and a potential FTA. Yet questions still remain as to who the UK will encounter as its interlocutor in Indonesia – a nationalist militaristic figure, or his reinvented softer image. 

Luc Parrot

Luc Parrot is Director for the Indo-Pacific desk at London Politica, a political risk start-up.