From dynasty to dynamism and back again: Indonesia’s Game of Thrones

President of Indonesia Joko Widodo. Photo: Kremlin

Gibran Rakabuming’s PDI-P registration has set the stage for Jokowi’s eldest son to join the political fray. As the Widodo family lays the foundations for a new political dynasty, why can’t Indonesia move beyond family politics?

By Oliver Ward

With the 2019 election behind it, the Widodo family has turned its gaze to 2020. Gibran Rakabuming, the president’s eldest son, registered as a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) last week and is expected to run in the Surakarta mayoral election next year. If he wins, he will occupy the same job that ignited his father’s political career.

In additional to his eldest son’s political aspirations, Joko Widodo’s 28-year-old son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, is reportedly exploring the possibility of running for mayor in Medan. He met with the Medan chapter of the National Democratic Party (NasDem) in early September.

Jokowi represented a break with dynasty politics

Part of Jokowi’s appeal in 2014 stemmed from his position as a political outsider. The slum-born, former furniture manufacturer stood out from the Indonesian political landscape due to his lack of family connections among the Jakarta elite. This helped endear him to the Indonesian electorate.

When he won the presidency, many dared to dream that his victory would usher in a new era for Indonesian politics. They saw it as a sign that the grip of political dynasties over Indonesian politics was weakening and a new era of dynamism was beginning. The Widodo family’s latest political machinations show this thinking may have been premature.

The Widodo family. From left: Kahiyang Ayu, Kaesang Pangarep, Joko Widodo, Iriana Widodo, Gibran Rakabuming
Photo: Wikimedia

Despite his limited political experience, there is strong evidence to suggest that Gibran will win the contest if he runs, laying the foundations for a Widodo dynasty. His father carried Central Java in 2019 with more than 77% of the vote and Gibran already enjoys more than 90% name recognition in the region.

In Indonesian politics, family comes first

The rumblings of a Widodo dynasty say less about the family’s thirst for power and more about the elitist nature of Indonesian politics.

Running for office in Indonesia is prohibitively expensive. The former deputy chief of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), Busyro Muqoddas, estimated that a serious run for a seat in the nation’s national legislature costs around Rp10 billion (US$708,000). While private donations are encouraged, many candidates end up footing a large proportion of the bill themselves.

In 2016, 11% of sitting regional executives were direct relations of their predecessors. In the 2017 and 2018 elections, there were at least 18 candidates who were related to incumbents.

In the 2019 presidential election, Sandiago Uno, Prabowo Subianto’s running mate, reportedly spent more than US$100 million of his own wealth on their campaign to unseat Jokowi.

Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno.
Photo: Jakarta Ministry of Information

Campaign costs of this magnitude exclude all but the wealthiest families from the upper echelons of Indonesian politics. Candidates can accept donations of up to Rp1 billion (US$100,000) per year from individual donors and up to Rp7.5 billion (US$750,000) from corporations. However, the introduction of an “open list” system in 2009 left many candidates struggling to get by on donations alone.

The open list system allows voters to vote for individual candidates rather than parties. Without clear ideological or policy distinctions, candidates are forced to seek alternative methods of separating themselves from the pack to accrue votes and donations. In a crowded, ideologically narrow field, name recognition takes on heightened importance. Additionally, vote-buying, where candidates distribute cash incentives to voters on election day in exchange for their support at the ballot box, is employed to maximize a candidate’s individual vote. These small cash incentives quickly add up and can cost campaigns billions of rupiah.

In one high-profile, the KPK found Golkar Party lawmaker Bowo Sidik Pangarso had accepted an Rp8 billion (US$565,632) donation from a transportation company manager. He then divided the money into envelopes to distribute to voters on election day.

There have been attempts to weaken the grip of political dynasties over Indonesian politics. But none have succeeded. In 2015, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled against a regulation which sought to prohibit the relatives of incumbents from running for office as soon as their term limit was up.

In other nations with strong institutions and rigorous checks and balances on government, political dynasties are not necessarily harmful. However, in Indonesia, there is nothing to prevent a family, once elected to local government, from filling senior management posts and government agencies with their relatives.

In Banten during Ratu Atut Chosiyah’s time as governor, ten family members held elected office and 21 relatives held appointed posts.

Through the establishment of political dynasties, families have been able to carve out fiefdoms across the country. With regional power tied to a single ruling family, corruption thrives, and politicians and government organisations make decisions in the interests of preserving power rather than for the electorate.

Tackling dynasty politics means going after the money

The move beyond dynasty politics and the push for meritocracy will take a concerted effort from both the legislature and the political parties themselves.

Introducing public funding for political parties would reduce their reliance on individual wealth and billionaire sponsors. However, without the introduction of additional measures, there is no guarantee that politicians and party leaders wouldn’t reap the benefits of the public purse while also injecting their own wealth into the campaigns, pushing campaign spending to new heights.

Putting the onus on the party for violating campaign financing laws, instead of the individual would help. By punishing both the individual and the party for illegal campaign contributions, the parties may think twice about accepting the cash.

A tougher stance towards vote-buying would also help reduce campaign costs and help curb dynastic politics.

The government could also require advertising platforms, both traditional and digital, to provide a set amount of free advertising to political parties. A quota could be devised based on the percentage of the popular vote each party received at the last election. This free advertising would allow smaller parties to break through the noise and reach voters without having to spend a significant chunk of their campaign finances on public advertising.

As long as money politics prospers, political dynasties will remain a permanent fixture of Indonesian politics. Gibran Rakabuming’s entry into politics and likely success is a symptom of a disease that weakens Indonesian democracy. Subianto, Chosiyah, Yudhoyono, Sukarno, Suharto, “they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.”