Indonesia’s 5th president Megawati Soekarnoputri and 2024 presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo at the inauguration of a statue of Indonesia’s first president Soekarno in Yogyakarta on 23 August. Photo by Andreas Fitri Atmoko for Antara.

In Indonesian history, presidents have been overthrown twice through popular demonstrations – once in 1966 and again in 1998. Both were ‘great presidents’ – the first was Soekarno, the ‘proclaimer of independence’, and the second was Soeharto, a “village boy from Kemusuk”, considered by some to be the ‘father of development’. Both fell due to their authoritarian leadership. Soekarno appointed himself president for life, while Suharto engineered a system of power that ensured he would win the presidency every five years.

These two historical events remind us how dangerous it is to worship a president, that the president is not some kind of rockstar or talisman to be adored. But even in the current era, many Indonesians – not only lay people, but also the educated – continue to worship the president as a cult. They love and adore the president as a “father” figure.

And even though history has often taught us how easily a leader can slip into authoritarianism, the political culture and the way people view leaders has not changed – and it is this lionising of national leaders that creates the conditions for authoritarian leadership.

The 2024 presidential election has already seen several surprises. First, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who still has great influence, has supported Prabowo Subianto rather than the presidential candidate from his own party, Ganjar Pranowo. Second, Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, was appointed as Prabowo’s running mate in highly controversial circumstances.

For some fans, Jokowi’s political methods have been disappointing, particularly the way he has aligned himself with a member of the elite like Prabowo. They now view Jokowi’s motives as dishonorable, particularly the way he seems to want to bequeath so much power to members of his own family.

Since 2014, fans had lauded Jokowi as an ‘authentic’ politician who worked his way up from the bottom, a ‘decent person’ from outside Jakarta’s ‘disreputable’ political elite. But in 2023, Jokowi’s new alignment with Prabowo caused a rethink among some of his supporters. For them, this partnership is a betrayal. However, for other backers, Jokowi’s popularity and power makes him simply too valuable to abandon. Instead of acknowledging his failures, they proclaim the birth of ‘Jokowism’.

This situation highlights the irony and contradictions in Indonesia’s democratic culture. On the one hand, Indonesians are cynical about politicians. In public surveys, the level of public trust in politicians is lower than other institutions and professions. Most Indonesians suspect politicians of corruption and like to repeat the adage that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Yet paradoxically, many Indonesians still speak enthusiastically about presidential candidates. When they are forced to choose, they become one-eyed, especially if their preferred candidate wins. The presidential cult makes people forget that elected officials are – first and foremost – politicians, who are only able to seek office because they have sworn loyalty to a range of political players and interest groups.

The sectarian politics deployed throughout the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections became a cause of intense political polarisation in Indonesia. But perhaps, the persistence of this polarisation and sectarianism also stems from toxic partisanship due to the prevailing presidential cult. Looking at current trends, perhaps Indonesia has arrived at a similar place to the US, where Gene Healy has noted “the modern presidency is now a divider, rather than a uniter. It has become too powerful to be anything else”.

There are at least five factors we can point to that sustain this presidential cult. The first is structural, namely the absence of parties built around ideologies or class interests. Nowadays, there are only two types of parties in Indonesia, core parties, like the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and the Party of Functional Groups (Golkar), and personalistic parties, like the Democrats (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) and Gerindra (Prabowo Subianto).

These personalistic parties are founded purely to help a particular political figure become president. The democratic tradition of parties championing a particular political ideology or class interest seem to be over. Political parties now function merely as machines for the pursuit of power under the shadow of patronage and oligarchy.

The second factor is cultural, namely the strong feudal traditions that view the palace as the pinnacle of society, with the president as a sort of representative of god.

The third is the legacy of authoritarianism, which perpetuates a view of the president as a kind of king who is beyond criticism or judgement.

The fourth factor involves idealising the president as the supposed lesser of two evils. Although the ‘lesser evil’ mechanism is grounded in political realism, it perpetuates the idealisation of the chosen presidential candidate by framing him or her as a comparatively moral figure, which is often divorced from the political reality.

The last factor is the most important – the way Indonesian democracy has been institutionalised, particularly through the 20 percent presidential threshold rule, which has allowed the major parties to monopolise presidential recruitment. The 20-percent threshold is a primordial noose that serves a dual function – it makes the president an untouchable figure, and it ensures the president’s rise is only possible with the support of party elites. The ‘lesser evil dilemma’ only occurs because from the start, people’s options are extremely limited.

As a result, a ‘presidential deficit’ emerges in Indonesia every election, which forces parties, especially small and medium parties, to jostle with each other to find support. The presidential candidates who emerge are then treated as idols who must be held close and fought for tooth and nail. Here everything is a product of politics.

The presidential cult is destroying the character and culture of our civic democracy – but I am not optimistic we will be able to escape it in 2024. What is certain is that if we want to get out of the old culture of autocracy and the presidential cult, if we want to break free from a contrived moral dilemma every five years, we can start by fighting to abolish the presidential threshold rule.

Only then can we hope to elect a president who is truly representative of the people and rid ourselves of these false illusions of greatness polished by algorithms.


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