Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his son Giran Rakabuming Raka on the campaign trail. Photo: Antara Foto

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s media and civil society activists have been warning darkly of a trend towards the growth of political dynasties after President Joko Widodo’s son and son-in-law won mayoralty positions in Java and Sumatra in the December 9 local government elections.

But while there has been an increase in what should be more accurately termed “political families” across the archipelago in the past few years, not unheard of in other democracies, it is also clear that constituent resistance ensures that many fail to endure at the polls.  

Indeed, there is scant evidence to show Indonesia is going the way of the Philippines where genuine political dynasties, rooted in a legacy of Spanish colonial-fostered feudalism, have allowed powerful provincial clans to rotate public posts at will for generations.

Widodo’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 33, was a shoo-in with a provisional 86.5% of the vote in the Central Java city of Solo, the same hometown position from which his furniture-maker father launched his political career in 2005.

Ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri wanted Gibran to wait his turn after the party’s Solo branch nominated the city’s deputy mayor. But he persisted and the party finally relented.

Son-in-law Bobby Nasution, 29, took out the mayoralty in his hometown of Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, by a much slimmer margin, defeating incumbent Akhyar Nasution, 54, who previously had been supported by PDI-P.

Beyond those two, Koran Tempo counted at least 53 successful candidates out of nine governors and 261 district chief and mayors it identified as family members of serving or retired officials, ranging from district chiefs to the president.

Former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri (L) and her daughter Puan Maharani (R), who is currently speaker of the lower house of parliament. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Among the most popular: Indrata Nur Bayuaji, 31, nephew of ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won 74% of the mayoral vote in the family’s East Java hometown of Pacitan, and Hanindhito Pramono, 28, son of Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung, the new mayor of Kediri with 76.5% support. 

Both cities are in East Java, but in each case neither family constitutes a powerful economic force, a characteristic that generally sets Indonesia apart from the Philippines. 

Doctoral candidate Yoes Kenawas points to 146 “dynastic politicians” taking part in the latest Indonesian polls, noting that between 2015 and 2018 117 had won direct elections for regional posts – a threefold increase over those holding office at the end of 2013 – and 85 had lost.

But there are major differences between the dynasties that hold sway over the Philippines through a mix of patronage, economic dependency and even violence, and the political families that have sprouted across Indonesia, where nepotism to secure party nominations and name recognition to amass popular votes is the name of the game.

After last year’s mid-term elections, online news outlet Rappler identified 163 Philippine families whose members include a senator, House representative or  governor, serving at the same time as other relatives from the same clan.

In Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown of Davao city, his daughter, Sarah Duterte, is mayor – a position the president himself held for  28 years – and his two sons fill the posts of vice mayor and one of the city’s three congressional seats.

That is repeated almost everywhere across the Philippines. Fourteen of the 24 senators belong to a powerful clan, as do 162 of the 300 House members and 60 of the 81 provincial governors. Six married couples are sitting in the Senate or the House.

The family of late president Ferdinand Marcos retains an iron grip on Ilocos Norte in northern Luzon, where it has held the governorship since 1998, along with a swag of mayoralties and congressional seats.  

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) walking with his children Sebastian (L), Veronica (2nd L), Sara (2nd R) and Paolo (R) after an oath-taking ceremony at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP/Stringer/Presidential Communications Office/ Stringer
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) walking with his children Sebastian (L), Veronica (2nd L), Sara (2nd R) and Paolo (R) after an oath-taking ceremony at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP/Stringer/Presidential Communications Office/ Stringer

In Isabela, on Luzon’s east coast, the ruling Dy and Albano clans share all the key political positions, as they have done for decades. Even champion boxer and national hero Manny Pacquiao has two brothers serving in the House and Senate, although that hardly foretells of a dynasty.

Australian electoral expert Kevin Evans says it is clear that while many Indonesian incumbents may seek to get their husbands, wives or even children to succeed them, voters often stop that from happening.

Kompas newspaper survey conducted last July found 61% of respondents were opposed to dynasties, a view borne out in 2018 when two sons and a daughter all failed to succeed their fathers as governors of West Kalimantan, East Kalimantan and South Sumatra.

As in other countries, partial family dynasties are not uncommon at the national level in Indonesia, starting with House of Representatives Speaker Puan Maharani, 47, Megawati’s daughter and granddaughter of founding president Sukarno.

Then there’s Agus Yudhoyono, 42, Yudhoyono’s eldest son who bowed to his father’s wishes and left a promising career in the military to mount what turned out to be a disastrous bid for the Jakarta governorship in 2017.

Maharani arguably does not have what it takes to become president and the political fortunes of Agus, now chairman of the Yudhoyono-led Democrat Party, rest on whether the party can win back more seats in the 575-seat Parliament.

None of Megawati’s other three children are in active politics, although her reclusive son, Prananda, writes the PDI-P matriarch’s speeches, and her niece, Puti Guntur Soekarno, 49, holds a House seat representing Surabaya and  Sidoarjo in East Java.

Yudhoyono’s second son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, 42, is on his third parliamentary term without making a mark, reportedly one reason why the ex-president turned to his older brother to carry the family banner in the Jakarta gubernatorial. 

Susilo and Agus Yudhoyono in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The only example of a genuine Philippine-style dynasty is in Banten, where the family of former governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah controls five of the province’s eight districts lying between Jakarta and the Sunda Strait, which separates Java and Sumatra.

The daughter of late patriarch Tubagus Chasan Sochib, Chosyiah, 58, was Indonesia’s first female governor, but she was suspended in 2014 for corruption and later sentenced to five years’ jail. It has done little to blunt her influence, however.

In the December 9 polls, former South Tangerang deputy mayor Benyamin Davnie partnered with Chosyiah’s nephew to win the mayoralty, leaving Vice-President Amin Ma’ruf’s daughter and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto’s niece on losing sides in the three-way race.

Davnie, 52, had previously served as the deputy to Airin Rachmi Diany, Chosnyiah’s sister-in-law whose husband, Tabugus Chaeri Wardhana, is serving a four year prison term in the same graft case that entrapped the former governor.

Further to the west, Chosyiah’s sister, Ratu Tata Chasanah, 53, was re-elected district chief of Serang, with a hefty 63.4% of the vote; her stepbrother, Tabugas Haerul Jaman, 52, the mayor of Serang city, the provincial capital, was not up for re-election. 

For all the dynastic concerns, there are many cases that tell a different story, none more so than the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar where ex-vice-president Jusuf Kalla and his allies have failed twice to secure election of a close relative to the key crossroads city. 

This time, Kalla’s nephew, Munafri Arifuddin, 45, again failed to win the mayoralty, losing to former incumbent Mohammad “Danny” Pomanto, 56, who was disqualified from seeking a second term in 2018 after the Supreme Court ruled he had erred in distributing cell phones to community leaders.

Munafri Arifuddin has failed to win electoral support. Image: Facebook

As the sole candidate, Arifuddin subsequently suffered the humiliation of losing to what is known as kotak kosong, an empty box, with recalcitrant Makassar voters ensuring he failed to win 50% of the vote needed to take office.

“This was truly an historic result when the candidate had secured 39 of 50 seats on the (municipal) council, plus the support of many of the most prominent figures in the region,” says Evans, the author of a book on Indonesian elections.

“The result was a rude reminder that there are limits to the extent to which local political elites can disrespect the citizenry by assuming they will rubber stamp any political deals they fashion.”

The Makassar result meant leaving a temporary appointee in charge until this latest round of elections, involving 100 million eligible voters, which despite Covid-19 restrictions pulled off without a hitch or allegations of fraud.

Although Widodo’s PDI-P and Golkar appear to have enjoyed the most success, the complexities of local politics, which sees parties consorting with strange  bedfellows, has meant there are few clues to the lie of the political landscape four years out from the 2024 elections.

It is interesting, however, that the opposition Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) figured in all of the winning coalitions in the nine gubernatorial elections, covering West Sumatra, Jambi, Bengkulu, Riau Islands, Central, South and North Kalimantan and North and Central Sulawesi.  

Meanwhile, if the rise of powerful families is becoming an increasing feature of regional politics, efforts to rein in the trend are going nowhere for now.   

In 2015, the Constitutional Court revoked a provision in the new Local Elections Law which sought to prohibit prospective candidates with blood or marital ties to regional leaders from running for local office.

The court found the article violated the 1945 Constitution and also the 1999 Human Rights Law, and the principles of civil liberties stipulated in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Indonesia ratified in 2006.

An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan
An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan

Researcher Kenawas says if an anti-dynasty law isn’t an option, reformers should consider imposing barriers by other constitutional means, including raising the minimum duration of party membership before an aspirant is eligible for public office.

Other measures, he says, could include nominating candidates through internal party conventions, reducing the party nomination threshold or lowering the requirement for independent candidates to participate in elections.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that even these strategies won’t be adequate to curb the growth of political dynasties if patronage relations between dynastic politicians and political parties do not change too,” says Kenawas. “And there is no sign this is likely.”