Dynastic politics are still at work in Indonesia. While it provides an entry ticket into the political arena, it is no guarantee of success.
Come 9 December 2020, 734 pairs of candidates will contest regional leaders’ seats in 270 regions across Indonesia. Among the contenders are members of the first family, namely, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, and Bobby Nasution, the president’s son-in-law. This foray into politics by the millennials in Jokowi’s family has sparked concerns that Jokowi is starting a political dynasty of his own.
One of the most significant reforms that Indonesia undertook after the fall of the Suharto government in 1998 was the decentralisation of powers to regional leaders – governors, district heads and mayors – and the promulgation of direct election of these leaders in 2005. It was exactly this policy that opened up the space for candidates with no connection to the elite, such as Jokowi, to assume political office by winning the popular vote. In theory, anyone, with or without pre-existing elite connections, could compete in an open electoral contest and win, all the way to the presidential palace, as Jokowi has done. After all, the president had entered politics in post-Reformasi (post-Reform) Indonesia without the advantage of a political lineage. However, would he be the first – and last – protagonist of such political fairy tales?
Gibran will be contesting the mayor’s seat in Solo, following in the footsteps of his father, who became the first directly-elected mayor of the traditional Javanese city in 2005. Born and bred in Solo, Gibran pursued further education in Singapore after graduating from junior secondary school. Upon returning to Solo, Gibran struck out on his own and founded a catering business, and has become a successful culinary businessman since.
One of the most significant reforms that Indonesia undertook after the fall of the Suharto government in 1998 was the decentralisation of powers to regional leaders … and the promulgation of direct election of these leaders in 2005.
His name first surfaced in July 2019 as a plausible candidate for the mayoral election in 2020 when a survey found that he was as popular as the city’s deputy mayor Achmad Purnomo, who was also a frontrunner for the mayor’s seat. Gibran became a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in September 2019, and was endorsed by the party as its mayoral candidate for Solo in July 2020.
Although Gibran was not exactly airdropped into the Solo electoral scene, he was very much a newcomer where party politics was concerned, especially in comparison with Achmad Purnomo. Purnomo was not only a veteran politician and PDI-P party stalwart, but also the PDI-P branch office’s preferred candidate. Moreover, besides matching Gibran’s popularity level, the incumbent deputy mayor had surpassed Gibran in terms of both acceptability and electability in the aforementioned survey.
However, party elders in the PDI-P eventually overrode the branch office’s decision and nominated Gibran instead. Perhaps this was done to avoid the scenario of having Gibran challenge the PDI-P’s bid on the ticket of another political party. Such is the realpolitik of these elections – political parties sometimes scramble to secure winning candidates on their ticket rather than prioritise the cultivation of their own candidates’ chances of winning. In the case of Gibran, the possibility of him inheriting the president’s popularity and charisma and turning the tide against Purnomo is not to be discounted in the calculus of any political party.
Is this dynastic politics at work then? If dynastic politics refer to the phenomenon whereby members of the same family, related by blood or marriage, gain political traction by association with family members who had preceded them in politics, then this is rather common in democracies around the world. Names that easily come to mind include the Aquinos of the Philippines and the Gandhis of India; and even in the US, the Kennedys and Bushes have had their time in the sun. It is in the nature of popular elections that visibility and social networks play critical roles, such that political lineage can provide an entry ticket to the political arena. However, success is never guaranteed and sometimes such associations can backfire.
We may recall that Jokowi’s own success owes much to his lack of association with elite interests in Jakarta. Back in Solo, Gibran faces the challenge of independent candidate Bagyo Wahyono, a tailor backed by Tikus Pithi Hanata Baris. Tikus Pithi is a mass organisation with the ostensible purpose of supporting the “wong cilik” (literally “little people”) against elite politicians. Although Gibran is leading the opinion polls with 36.8 per cent (against Bagyo’s 1.3 per cent), he has to be careful not to come across as part of the elite riding roughshod over the “wong cilik”, which could seriously dent his lead.
Over in Medan, Jokowi’s Batak son-in-law Bobby is in a tough tussle with incumbent mayor Akhyar Nasution. Akhyar has been leading against Bobby in one opinion poll (53.1 per cent against 37.3 per cent) while trailing in another (20.8 per cent against 31.4 per cent). However, what runs in Akhyar’s favour is his longstanding status in Medan’s political scene, and the fact that as a senior PDI-P politician, he was displaced from PDI-P’s nomination roll by newcomer Bobby. Faced with a rift in PDI-P’s ranks and Akhyar’s deep roots among voters, securing the mayor’s seat in Medan is an uphill challenge for Bobby.
Indonesia has shown us that dynastic politics exists, but it is not a currency that guarantees victory at the polls. While political pedigree may offer a shot at political office, many other factors come into play when one enters the electoral field. Jokowi is a case in point.
Hui Yew-Foong is Visiting Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.