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Indonesia’s fragile democracy faces badly flawed election

In a record year for elections around the world, Indonesia’s February 14, 2024, vote is set to be one of the largest – and it will be one of the sternest tests for democracy’s progress.

Voters are expected to turn out in record numbers to choose some 20,000 national, provincial and district parliamentary representatives in what will be the world’s largest single-day election. Indonesia does not allow votes to be cast in advance.

While the scale of the election might seem to suggest a vibrant state of democracy in Indonesia, multiple factors – including a voting system susceptible to money politics and vote buying, alleged violations of election rules, the sheer number of down-ballot candidates and a cacophony of political messages on social media – make it difficult for voters to know what they are voting for and to effectively express their preferences.

Indonesia’s General Elections Commission reports that as many as 204 million voters are enrolled for the election, with about 114 million of them under 40 years of age. Polls say the top issues for younger voters include unaffordable basic goods, lack of employment opportunities, high poverty rates, expensive health services and poor education quality and service.

Meanwhile, there are concerns among many observers that Indonesia’s democracy has been backsliding in recent years.

Southeast Asia’s largest economy

As an expert on Indonesia’s international relations, I see how the election has implications far beyond the sprawling archipelago’s borders and comes at a crucial time.

Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy but faces getting caught in what economists call the middle-income trap, where its wages are too high but productivity too low to be competitive.