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Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, has voted for a new president

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The world's third-largest democracy, Indonesia, has voted for a new president.

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The country's defense minister is claiming victory and says the exit polls are on his side. He has the backing of the current president and has a controversial record on human rights.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Jakarta and joins us now. Good morning, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: So you just came back from a polling station. What did you see?

KUHN: Well, this was the scene at a station in Jakarta's Menteng neighborhood. Let's listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: Poll workers were manually taking each ballot out of a box and reading it and tallying it. And if you consider that Indonesia has more than 200 million eligible voters, that's a lot of work. Now, these unofficial exit polls show that Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has defeated two former provincial governors. The official results will come out in a month, but it looks like Prabowo has scored the absolute majority he needs to avoid a runoff vote, and if Prabowo takes office, he's expected to continue the popular policies of President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, as he's known here.

FADEL: So let's talk about why this vote is being so closely watched around the world. Why is that?

KUHN: Well, a lot of it has to do with Indonesia's scale. It's Southeast Asia's largest economy. It's the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. And this country's future direction is at stake. This country was under the dictatorship of the General Suharto for 32 years. It's been a fledgling democracy for about 25 years. It still faces huge challenges - poverty, corruption, deforestation, big ethnic and religious divisions - and the election is going to have an impact on these. Also, we should say that elections are being held in many countries around the world this year, and when people look to see where democracy is advancing or retreating, Indonesia is an important case.

FADEL: Now, as you point out, it's a relatively young democracy. Are there concerns about the election's fairness?

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KUHN: Well, I think the main concern is that you have a popular president, Jokowi, who has been seen as a democrat but is now backing a candidate with a record of human rights abuses. And he may deny them, but Indonesia's own military sacked him in 1998 for his role in kidnapping and killing political activists and opponents of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor. Now, in the election, there have been reports and allegations of Jokowi and Prabowo buying votes, intimidating critics and people accusing Jokowi of making his son the vice presidential candidate in order to build a political dynasty. And there are also concerns about disinformation, particularly the use of artificial intelligence. We have seen, for example, videos of the candidates altered with AI to say things they didn't really say. But we don't know how big an impact this is having.

FADEL: And how could the election impact Indonesia's role on the global stage?

KUHN: Well, Indonesia is this huge archipelago with huge natural resources, and it needs foreign investment to connect it and get the resources out. And increasingly it's relying on China to do this. Indonesia does not want to have to pick sides in the U.S. and China rivalry, but Jokowi has moved closer to China, and Prabowo has indicated he may follow suit.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, joining us from Jakarta. Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you.

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Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.