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nathan allen

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, gestures to supporters in Jakarta after registering for the July 9 election.Reuters

On July 9, Indonesian voters will choose a new president. The outcome could reverse democratic gains made in the past 15 years in the world's fourth-most populous country.

To subvert Indonesian democracy from within, an aspiring strongman must gather a coalition capable of fielding a presidential candidate, win over a majority of voters and then use power to alter Indonesia's institutions. A former general, Prabowo Subianto, is close to completing the first two tasks, but the third will be more difficult. He envisions returning to the institutions of the authoritarian era, but does not yet have the political support required to enact his plans. Even if democracy survives, though, Canada-Indonesia relations could be strained by the candidate's ambition and record of human-rights abuses.

The presidential election pits two candidates representing different eras of Indonesian politics and different dispositions toward democracy. Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, represents a new style of local democracy. Raised in modest conditions in Java, he left his furniture business to run for mayor of Solo, a city of half a million. As mayor, Jokowi earned a reputation for clean governance and a hands-on style. In 2012, he gained national attention when he won the gubernatorial race in Jakarta, demonstrating that victory can be achieved through merit rather than nepotism and bribery.

Prabowo, popularly known by his first name, represents Indonesia's old era of military politics. Born into one of Indonesia's elite families, Prabowo was largely raised abroad after his father supported a failed rebellion in 1958. He attended schools in Kuala Lumpur, London and Zurich before returning to Indonesia in 1968, when his family was rehabilitated following General Suharto's seizure of power three years earlier.

The ambitious Prabowo joined the military and eventually married one of Suharto's daughters. As a Special Forces officer, he defended the regime by whatever means necessary, including kidnapping pro-democracy activists, an action Prabowo now rationalizes as loyally following Suharto's orders. After the fall of Suharto's regime in 1998, Prabowo was dismissed from his post following unauthorized troop movements that many interpreted as a coup attempt.

In terms of public policy, there are minimal differences between Jokowi and Prabowo. Both are sympathetic to economic nationalism and neither individual is a religious conservative by Indonesian standards. In fact, their respective parties ran a joint presidential ticket in 2009.

There is a sharp distinction, however, in their approach to reform and their support for democratic institutions.

Jokowi prefers to pursue reforms within the current institutions and has called for a vaguely defined "mental revolution" to deal with the country's problems. Prabowo, on the other hand, has built his appeal by calling for "firm" leadership capable of cutting through political gridlock. It is telling that he favours institutional changes that would consolidate power in the presidency and eliminate direct presidential elections.

An unaccountable, unconstrained presidency was an institutional hallmark of Suharto's dictatorship, and reverting to such a structure would constitute a significant setback for democracy.

A healthy democratic system should either block the rise of would-be autocrats or constrain them even if they win elections. An autocrat needs political allies, and this is especially true in Indonesia where small parties are prohibited from running a presidential candidate on their own.

Prabowo has managed to stitch together an electoral coalition – albeit one heavily dependent on religious conservatives – that allows him to compete. That a politician intent on consolidating personal power can build a viable electoral coalition means Prabowo has overcome democracy's first institutional line of defence.

The next line of defence is the voters.

Years of campaigning and the support of his billionaire brother have helped Probowo raise his personal profile. Recently he has attracted considerable public support, and the polls have tightened. He is an energetic campaigner, tapping into public disaffection and exciting several key constituencies, including religious extremists.

In contrast, Jokowi's campaign has been subdued. The candidate has at times been overshadowed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the polarizing chairwoman of Jokowi's political party, whose term as president from 2001 to 2004 was marked by political inaction and corruption scandals. What looked like an easy walk to victory for Jokowi has turned into a potentially close finish.

Indonesian democracy's final line of defence is a series of institutional set of checks and balances created to frustrate the ambitions of a potential autocrat.

If he is elected, Prabowo will face a challenging political environment. The president's powers are limited, significant authority is decentralized to regional governments and constitutional change is difficult to enact. Furthermore, Prabowo's allies have limited loyalty to their candidate.

Unlike other elected strongmen, like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Prabowo will not lead a dominant party. Instead, he will need to push his agenda while simultaneously balancing a fractitious, self-interested governing coalition whose members are likely to abandon the president if the going gets tough.

Indonesia's decentralized, fragmented institutional structure slows governance and limits the possibilities for major change. Prabowo's appeal has been bolstered by a promise to get results by running roughshod over the system.

While it's easy to declare this intention during a stump speech, Prabowo might find it difficult to slip the institutional ties that bind once in office. The legislature has already forced one president from power since Suharto and could do it again if the constitution is violated. In other words, Indonesian democracy could still survive Prabowo.

Most foreign observers hope the institutions do not get put through this test. Even if Indonesian democracy were to survive, the country could find itself sidelined internationally. The Canada-Indonesia relationship has warmed since Suharto's ouster, but Prabowo's human-rights record bars him from entering certain countries and the Canadian government will feel pressure to distance itself from his government. This diplomatic headache is avoidable if the furniture maker wins.

Nathan Allen is a research fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada