Indonesia’s recent regional elections were generally successful. But they have also unmasked an interesting development – the pursuit of oligarchy by a president who was once dead set against it.
The regional elections in Indonesia which took place on 9 December were successful despite being held in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. No significant security disturbances were reported. Voter turnout, however, decreased significantly in most regions. Compared to established democracies, however, turnout was still astonishingly high.
There are two things that are of concern to the public about this regional election. The first is the Covid-19 pandemic that will lower voter turnout and, on the other hand, increase the number of infections. The second is the involvement of the relatives and families of national politicians.
The Indonesian Election Commission (KPU) reported that the voters’ turnout in the 2020 elections was 76.1 per cent. This figure is actually better than the 2015 regional election turnout (68.8 per cent) but lower than the 2019 general election (81.9 per cent). However, the 2019 regional data shows that there are variations between urban and rural areas. In general, voter turnout is high in rural areas and tends to be low in urban areas. Likewise, there are differences between small towns and big cities.
This year’s regional head elections were marked by several high-profile races involving some national-level big names. President Jokowi had two of his family members on the race. His first son, Gibran Rakabuming, ran the race for mayor in his hometown Surakarta. Meanwhile, his son-in-law Muhammad Bobby Nasution jousted in the mayoral race in Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia.
The other high-profile races were in South Tangerang regency (Banten province) and in Makassar (South Sulawesi). In South Tangerang, the race involved Vice President Ma’ruf Amin’s daughter (Siti Nur Azizah), Prabowo Subianto’s niece (Saraswati Rahayu Djojohadikusumo), and a nephew of Ratu Atut Chosiyah, former Banten governor and matriarch of a local dynasty. In Makassar, the race was between Munafri Arifuddin, former Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s nephew, against the former incumbent mayor, Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto.
High profile races did not automatically generate higher voter turnout. In Surakarta, President Jokowi’s hometown, voter turnout shrank from 85 per cent in the 2019 general election to 70.5 per cent. In Medan, the turnout was only 46 per cent. This was actually better than the 2015 regional elections, when the turnout was only 25 per cent, but much lower compared to the 2019 election which registered a turnout of 74 per cent. The voter turnout in Makassar in this election season was 59.7 per cent, the lowest among other regions holding elections in South Sulawesi province.
The pandemic was commonly cited as a factor in declining voter turnout. This is a reasonable conclusion for urban areas, especially in big cities where information about Covid-19 is being disseminated intensively. Small town and rural areas, however, registered higher turnout. There are other factors that influenced voter turnout. Regional elections generally attract less enthusiasm among voters compared to general elections. The former deals with more bread-and-butter issues and are less ideological.
The number of Covid-19 infections increased after the election. Health workers in some areas estimate that there is a significant relationship between the rise in infections and the elections. In East Java province, for example, there was an increase of around 700 cases per day after the election. The same thing happened in Banten, North Sulawesi, Bali and several other regions.
Surely, Jokowi’s son and son-in-law’s political ambitions will not end at the mayoral level. They could well be eyeing far higher offices.
The results of the regional head elections also provide an interesting picture of Indonesian politics. One that is widely observed in this election is dynastic politics. So far, candidates categorised as dynasts were not automatically elected. As of December 20, 55 out of the 124 dynastic races saw victories for the candidates from well-connected families. This constituted a winning rate of 44.3 per cent.
The most attention is understandably directed at President Jokowi. This is because the position of the president is diametrically different from before. People question the president’s motivations because it is a dramatic reversal from his previous position. Before his re-election in 2019, Jokowi boasted to the public that he was proud of his children because they stayed away from politics and instead focused on cultivating their businesses. His children also expressed their lack of interest in joining their father in pursuing a career in politics. It was all changed, however, just a few months after Jokowi’s successful re-election.
Gibran Rakabumin won the election by a landslide 86.5 per cent against a very weak opponent. Bobby Nasution, the president’s son-in-law, however, won against the underperforming incumbent mayor by a slight margin of 53.5 per cent.
Finally, what is Jokowi trying to achieve by placing two of his family members as mayors? Jokowi is not a conventional politician by Indonesian standards. He does not have a political party of his own. Formally, he is a member of PDIP but he does not control the party. He is very skilful at politicking and threading around Indonesia’s oligarchy. Surely, Jokowi’s son and son-in-law’s political ambitions will not end at the mayoral level. They could well be eyeing far higher offices. By backing them, Jokowi has established himself as one of the oligarchs in this country. The sad irony here is that he was dead set against such oligarchies in his first run as president.
Made Supriatma is a Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.