In Indonesia, an Election Threatens Democracy Itself

Indonesia’s transformation into a stable democracy over the past quarter century was as improbable as it was remarkable.

In 1998, the country was on the brink of collapse from a devastating financial crisis and protests that brought down the brutal and corrupt 32-year Suharto dictatorship. Ethnic and religious violence across the sprawling archipelago raised the specter of Balkanization or a military crackdown.

Then, against the odds, the nation’s entrenched elites acceded to public demands for reform and the military withdrew from political life, ushering in an era of open, competitive elections. Corruption and dysfunction persisted, but the world’s fourth most populous country emerged as a rare bright spot for liberalism.

Dark clouds are gathering again. Indonesians will vote for a new president on Wednesday to succeed the outgoing Joko Widodo. But the man expected to win — and the anti-democratic path that Mr. Joko has set the country on — threaten many of the gains Indonesians have achieved.

The overwhelming front-runner in the race is Prabowo Subianto, a 72-year-old former army general under Mr. Suharto who has been implicated in human rights abuses, including the abduction and torture of pro-democracy activists during the anti-Suharto uprising. More than a dozen of those people remain missing and are feared dead; Mr. Prabowo was never formally charged.

He has grasped for the presidency ever since. Mr. Prabowo has criticized the reforms of the democratic era and previously called for reinstating the original 1945 constitution, which would remove checks on presidential power and abolish direct elections. Many critics fear that he would return Indonesia to autocracy.

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