Will Prabowo’s presidency chart a brighter future for EU–Indonesia relations?


On 14 February 2024, more than 164 million people cast their votes in Indonesia’s presidential election, making it the largest single-day election in the world. Frontrunner Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s defence minister, won by a landslide. This article analyses what Prabowo’s victory means for Indonesia, as well as EU–Indonesia relations, by looking at the current state of the relations and Prabowo’s recent nationalistic discourse.

Teaser Image Caption
Freelance workers fold ballot papers for the 2024 Election in a logistics storage warehouse in Pekalongan, Indonesia, on 5 January 2024.


Check out our web dossier "The road to the 2024 European Parliament elections", featuring insights from the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's offices and partners on the 2024 European Parliament elections, the next EU legislative term, and the "super election" year 2024 ✅🗳️🇪🇺

After months of political manoeuvre, countless debates and intense campaigning, the answer to who will lead Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, in the next five years is finally clear. On 14 February, more than 164 million people cast their votes in Indonesia’s presidential election, making it the largest single-day election in the world. And on 20 March, the country’s election commission officially declared Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s current defence minister, the winner.

Prabowo’s campaign run is not without its own controversies. He had to face questions from his opponents over his role in the kidnapping and torturing of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s, when he served as a military general. And having been married to the daughter of the late dictator, over his personal ties to the bloody regime of Suharto

Due to the allegations of human rights abuses, he was dismissed from the military and placed on a visa blacklist by the US for about two decades. It wasn’t until 2019, when he became the defence minister, that the US lifted the ban.

Despite his controversial past, Prabowo was able to secure a landslide victory in the election, winning more than 96 million votes, or 58% of the total 164 million votes cast.

Why Prabowo won

Prabowo previously ran as the antithesis of outgoing president Joko Widodo – known as Jokowi – and lost twice in the presidential elections of 2014 and 2019. This time, however, he billed himself to voters as the ‘continuity candidate’ by promising to continue Jokowi’s policies. Jokowi, who is incredibly popular among the public, with an all-time-high approval rating of 80%, was barred under the constitution from running again.

Jokowi informally backed Prabowo through various means. Most importantly, Jokowi’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, ran for the vice presidential seat with Prabowo after Jokowi exerted his influence on the country’s constitutional court to change a law on the minimum age of vice-presidential candidates. Moreover, there are allegations that Jokowi used state resources to help Prabowo win the election, such as increasing welfare handouts ahead of the vote.

Prabowo has also attempted to shift the public's perception away from his bloody past as a military general by adopting a more endearing image. On TikTok, numerous videos feature him dancing and gesturing playfully. Social media platforms like TikTok are especially popular among young people, many of them first time voters, who don’t have much knowledge about what Prabowo allegedly did in the past.

Now that the election dust has settled, what will Indonesia look like under Prabowo’s presidency, especially in regard to its relations with other countries?

Indonesia after the election

Indonesia has traditionally adopted a neutral foreign policy under the ‘free and active’ motto since it is a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

This means that Indonesia has rarely engaged in foreign policy beyond its own interests. This was particularly apparent during the presidency of Jokowi, who is said to have little personal interest in foreign policy matters, and who regularly sits out the United Nations’ General Assembly.

Instead, Jokowi has been prioritising economic development, and thus only engages in foreign diplomacy when it comes with investment benefits. With Prabowo vowing to continue Jokowi’s policy, it is to be expected that he will also adopt this neutral approach. However, during his tenure as defence minister, Prabowo has shown indications that he would take a more active role in global diplomacy if he became president.

Last year, Prabowo proposed a peace plan to end the war in Ukraine, calling for a demilitarised zone and a United Nations referendum in what he called a territorial dispute. And there are signs that both Indonesia and China are trying to establish deeper relations, with Prabowo meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on 1 April, a rare occurrence as Beijing usually welcomes foreign dignitaries only after they are inaugurated. This indicates that Prabowo might adopt a more outward-looking approach compared to Jokowi.

This presents an opportunity for the EU, which has had mixed relations with Indonesia in the modern era. The Indonesian public doesn’t seem to see the EU as a threat, with China being seen as more threatening due to its impressive economic growth and military prowess. However, Indonesia’s trust with the EU seems to have eroded due to growing tensions in recent years.

According to the 2023 State of Southeast Asia Report by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Indonesia, along with Myanmar, is the only ASEAN nation where distrust surpasses trust in the EU.

Souring relations

This growing distrust stems from ongoing commodity disputes between the two parties, starting in 2017, when the EU passed a resolution on palm oil and deforestation. This resolution calls for phasing out vegetable oils that drive deforestation, including palm oil, as a component of biofuels by 2020.

This is expected to put huge pressure on Indonesian exports, as the EU is the third-largest market for Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer.

And in April 2023, the EU passed a law called the EU Deforestation Regulation, which would further restrict palm oil imports from Indonesia into the EU. The regulation, due to be enforced in December 2024, allows only the trade of commodities – namely soy, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, timber, rubber and beef – that do not drive deforestation, which could further affect Indonesia’s palm oil exports to the EU. Prabowo is not pleased with it.

During a foreign policy talk in Jakarta in November 2023, he accused Europeans of having double standards on the issue of deforestation and of unfairly treating Indonesian products, such as palm oil, in the European market. He pointed out that Europeans were being hypocritical in asking Indonesians to stop clearing forests.

‘We want equal treatment and fairness. ... It was the Europeans who came to our islands and forced us to plant tea, coffee, and rubber. ... And now you are saying that we are destroying our forests … You destroyed our forests before,’ Prabowo said, alluding to the colonial era.

Europe might have lost its relevance in Indonesia because of this double standard so much that the country ‘does not really need Europe anymore’, he added.

But Indonesia might still need the EU as a sizable market for its products. And the EU also needs a solid partnership with Indonesia due to its enormous and growing geopolitical and economic significance in the region, with the country on its way to becoming one of the world’s largest economies due to its rapidly growing middle class. So how to mend the broken trust between the EU and Indonesia?

Future of the EU and Indonesia’s relationship

The EU could do so through its climate policies. The bloc has already established relationships with Indonesia in terms of climate change, particularly energy transition.

Indonesia has a number of mechanisms to implement its energy transition policy. Chief among them is the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), in which several G7 member countries pledged to provide funds amounting to USD 20 billion for Indonesia. The EU became one of many partners in the JETP mechanism, allocating EUR 2.4 billion to support Indonesia’s energy transition.

The commitment is far from enough to cover the cost of decarbonising Indonesia’s power sector to comply with internationally agreed climate goals, estimated at USD 35 billion per year until 2030.

While commitments to provide funding for Indonesia’s energy transition have been made, Indonesia is concerned that most of the funding commitments come in the form of commercial loans, rather than concessional loans and grants.

Concessional loans have more generous terms than commercial loans, with below-market interest rates and grace periods in which the loan recipient doesn’t have to pay the debt for several years.

Furthermore, there are also differing opinions between funders and Indonesia in terms of how to spend the money. The EU and other partner countries prefer that Indonesia prioritise using the money to develop renewable energy.

The Indonesian government, meanwhile, would like to use some of the money to phase out coal-fired power plants, deemed crucial for Indonesia to reach its climate goal of net-zero carbon emissions, since coal still accounts for more than 40% of the country’s electricity mix.

However, the industrialised nations in the JETP have been unwilling to fund Indonesia’s early coal retirement programme as it is deemed to be commercially unviable, with only around USD 1.5 billion of funding designated for the cause.

The EU should address Indonesia’s concerns to show that it’s truly committed to helping the country’s energy transition and climate agenda.

What the EU shouldn’t do is expect Indonesia to simply align with its views on climate policy, or even worse, tell Indonesia what to do. Prabowo himself has already given a clear warning.

‘No one needs to preach to us [about climate change]. We already feel [the impact] every day,’ he said during an event on 5 March 2024.

With Prabowo’s nationalistic remarks and antagonistic view of Europe, it would be wise for the EU to start treating Indonesia as an equal partner and focus on addressing its interests and needs, such as more just climate funding and tailored support.

This can be achieved through mechanisms like the Global Gateway, a funding platform initiated by the EU in 2021 as an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at pouring money into infrastructure projects worldwide.

This funding mechanism is more flexible and can be tailored to Indonesia’s needs since only European financial institutions are part of it. Therefore, it is not burdened with the interests of other industrialised countries in the JETP.

Failure to establish a deeper trust and connections with Indonesia might risk the Southeast Asian country distancing itself further from Europe and becoming closer to other countries, as Prabowo alluded to in his 2023 speech. He said there’s a need for ‘a rebalancing’ for Indonesia because it ‘has been looking to the West in the past 50 or 60 years’, and thus it would be better for the country to ‘learn from other countries in the East such as Japan, [South] Korea, China and India’.

Perhaps it is time for the EU to learn from Indonesia, and listen to what it really needs.


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.