Jakarta — Indonesians head to the polls February 14 to vote in the world’s largest single-day election to select local and parliamentary representatives and a new president.

Of the 270 million citizens on the country’s 17,000 islands, 205 million over the age of 17 are eligible to vote. Seventy-five percent of Indonesia’s population is expected to vote Wednesday, according to the Indonesian General Elections Commission, with 106 million of those expected voters under age 40, or 52% of anticipated voters.

This is only the second time that the Southeast Asian nation is holding a presidential and parliamentary election simultaneously since 2019. All told, there are some 20,000 administrative posts in play across the country. Voters cast a secret ballot on paper. And while unofficial results should be available within 24 hours of voting, the official results won’t be available until 35 days later, at the earliest.

Three men are vying for the top spot — Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan.

Their contest may end in a June runoff before the world’s most populous Muslim nation elects a successor to President Joko Widodo. Known as Jokowi, he must leave after serving two five-year terms despite his popularity. His son, Gibran Rakabuming, is the vice-presidential candidate running with Prabowo, who lost to Widodo in the 2014 and 2019 elections.

Economy, jobs, food

Domestic issues are central to the presidential race. Economic growth slowed to 5% in 2023 compared with 5.3% the year before, according to Statistics Indonesia, which reported the unemployment rate was 5.32% in August 2023. But for Indonesians ages 15 to 24, about 14% were jobless, according to the International Labor Organization.

According to a regional U.N. food security report, almost 70% of Indonesians cannot afford healthy food. Adding to the globally familiar list of the economy, jobs and food security is the domestic debate over Widodo’s ambitious plan to move the capital from Jakarta to Nusantara to ease congestion and distribute economic activity outside the nation’s largest metropolitan area. International issues include the South China Sea dispute with China and climate change.

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Complex rules

Prabowo, the son-in-law of Suharto, a former Indonesian strongman, is leading by nearly 30 points in recent polls. Of the 1,200 people surveyed by Indikator Politik Indonesia, between January 28 and February 4, 51.8% said they would vote for Prabowo’s ticket, while 24.1% and 19.6 % would choose Anies and Ganjar, respectively.

Victory for Prabowo is not assured, due to Indonesia’s election rules, even if he gets the most votes on February 14. To win, a candidate must obtain more than 50% of total votes cast, and at least 20% of votes in more than half of the country’s provinces. If Prabowo fails to make those percentages, he faces a June 26 runoff with the second-place finisher, which observers suggest could be a tougher race to win.

Prabowo, 72, is making his third run at the presidency. He is the current minister of defense. During the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s, he was dismissed from the military amid speculation of rights abuses over the kidnapping of democracy activists. He denies any wrongdoing.

Prabowo has rebranded himself on social media, where his “Cuddy Grandpa” social media persona appeals to millennials and Gen Z voters, who make up about 56% of the total eligible voting population, according to the Indonesian General Elections Commission.

But they are too young to recall his brutal past that prompted the United States to ban him until 2020, when he visited Washington after he became Widodo’s defense minister.

Ganjar, 55, comes from a Central Javanese family led by a father who worked as a police officer. He served as the governor of Central Java between 2013 and 2023 and belongs to the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Before becoming governor, he served in parliament, where he worked on issues related to agriculture, maritime, food security, land and agricultural reforms.

Ganjar topped opinion surveys until he backed a call by the governor of Bali last year to stop Israel from taking part in the Under-20 World Cup, which Indonesia was due to host.

Anies, 54, is a former university rector who launched an initiative in 2010 to bring education to remote corners of the vast archipelago that attracted thousands of volunteers. He went on to serve as the minister of education during Jokowi’s first term. After he was dismissed, he ran for governor of Jakarta, a position often seen as the launch pad for the presidency. He was elected in 2017, when he was supported by hard-line Islamist groups organized against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian politician.

Anies is not a member of any political party but is endorsed by Nasional Demokrat, a secular nationalist party, and PKS, the conservative Islamic Prosperous Justice Party.

China and climate change

A nationally televised presidential debate held last month illuminated the differences among the presidential candidates on handling the South China Sea dispute with Beijing and climate change.

Indonesia is just one country that has claims in the South China Sea, resource-rich waters that China claims in full as its own. Indonesia has faced pushback from China over its exploration of oil and gas reserves in the North Natuna Sea.

Ganjar proposed three solutions: endorsing a temporary agreement with China, strengthening Indonesia’s naval capacity and patrols, and starting the exploitation of gas reserves in the North Natuna Sea, which is between Indonesia and Vietnam and south of the South China Sea.

Similarly, Prabowo said disputes in the South China Sea underline the need for a strong defense force, platforms for patrols and additional satellites. Meanwhile, Anies said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to play a bigger role in resolving disputes, including those in the South China Sea.

The three vice-presidential candidates tackled environmental issues during the debate. Iqbal Damanik, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, said the statements by the vice- presidential candidates on climate change failed to offer lasting solutions for coastal communities and the importance of environmental impact assessment.

Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, compiled opinion surveys of Indonesian voters, which concluded that voters care more about climate change than politicians do, and climate change is the top concern of young voters.

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