Indonesia's Jokowi turns politics into a family business
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Indonesia's Jokowi turns politics into a family business

One-time furniture maker who fought his way to the top was meant to be different. Originally published in Nikkei Asia.

Ben Bland is the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute and the author of "Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia"

The children of five of Indonesia's first six presidents followed their parents into politics, reflecting the dynastic power that permeates much of Asia. Indonesia's seventh president, Joko Widodo, was meant to be different.

First elected in 2014, Jokowi, as he is universally known, was the first leader from outside the elite, a former furniture manufacturer who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Jokowi rose from mayor of his home city of 500,000 people to president of the world's fourth most populous nation in just two years, his rapid ascent propelled by popular frustrations with the corrupt and nepotistic political establishment.

In his ghostwritten autobiography, the 59-year-old made much of his everyman roots and praised his children, a daughter and two sons, for building their own small businesses without seeking his assistance. "Becoming a president does not mean channeling power to my children," he said, in an implicit dig at his predecessors.

So it was a great surprise to many voters last year when Jokowi's oldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 33, and his son-in-law Bobby Nasution, 29, announced that they were running in important mayoral elections with the backing of the president's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P. Supported by a raft of other political parties, their candidacies look like an attempted elite stitch-up.

More than 100 million Indonesians will be voting for 270 directly elected provincial governors, city mayors and regency heads on Wednesday. Gibran is an overwhelming favorite to become mayor of Surakarta -- more commonly known as Solo, his father's former position -- while Bobby faces a tougher battle to become mayor of the key Sumatran city of Medan.

Gibran's likely smooth transition from the catering industry to politics contrasts sharply with that of his father, who had to fight to win the PDI-P nomination for Solo mayor before defeating three other candidates in the 2005 election. Jokowi's leadership skills and his remarkable connection with voters were forged in the fire of competitive elections. By contrast, Gibran seems to represent the old way of doing politics in Indonesia, trading off patronage networks.

The two candidacies underline how far Jokowi has moved from ultimate outsider to consummate elite politician during his six years as president. Jokowi has denied that he is looking to build a dynasty. But having his son and son-in-law active in politics will boost his longer-term influence as he prepares to step down at the end of his second term in 2024.

More importantly, the ambitions of Jokowi's family have drawn attention to the enduring power of political dynasties in Indonesia, 22 years after long-ruling autocrat Suharto was forced from office and the nation embarked on a bold experiment in democratization and decentralization. Over 100 dynastic politicians are competing in Wednesday's elections, according to Yoes Kenawas, an Indonesian academic, up from around 50 when these areas last chose their leaders in 2015.

In the Jakarta satellite city of South Tangerang, three prominent families are facing off against each other with one ticket led by the daughter of Indonesia's Vice President, Ma'ruf Amin, another including the niece of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and a third including the scion of a powerful local clan. In Kediri in East Java, the son of Pramono Anung, Jokowi's cabinet secretary, is running unopposed, one of 25 races where local elites have cooperated to ensure no rival candidates.

This concerning state of affairs is testament to the resilience of the Indonesian political and business elite, which has learned how to capture power in a heavily decentralized democratic system. It is also the result of structural deficiencies in Indonesian politics.

There are sixteen parties contesting these local elections and nine parties with legislators in the national parliament. But there are few clear ideological differences between them, and most parties pay minimal attention to policy platforms. Instead, they function more like vote-getting machines during elections and patronage distribution machines once in power.

Picking the descendant of a well-known family is an easy way to get voters' attention when parties have little else to offer. The high cost of running for office, from legitimate campaign expenditure to the widespread distribution of basic goods and, sometimes, cash in an effort to "buy" voters, also favors candidates with existing sources of funding as well as connections. Indonesian voters are frustrated with the dominance of dynasties, with a recent survey for newspaper Kompas showing that 61% dislike the practice.

Structural change, in the shape of better campaign finance laws, political party reform and a deeper crackdown on malfeasance, will take a long time, if it happens at all. The recent arrest of two of Jokowi's cabinet ministers on corruption allegations highlights how many elite politicians still view government as a cash-cow rather than a vocation.

Elections are one of the few times when Indonesians can ensure their voices are heard, and they regularly turn out at levels that put most established democracies to shame. Even in the 25 areas where candidates are running opposed, voters will have the option of selecting an empty box instead, effectively voiding the election if more than 50% of voters do so.

Jokowi's rise, defeating wealthy businesspeople and influential elite politicians to claim the presidency, shows that change is possible in Indonesia. But his family's entry into politics -- and the unrelenting power of Indonesia's dynasties -- demonstrates the limits of change.

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; South China Sea; regional economic trends; China-ASEAN relations; Indonesia; Malaysia; Vietnam; Hong Kong