Dynastic politics: Indonesia's new normal

By Yoes C Kenawas
PhD candidate at Northwestern University

Dynastic politics is a new normal in Indonesia’s democracy.

Power transfer from elected officeholders to their own family members has grown dramatically over the past 15 years.

Despite the ephemeral nature of many Indonesian political dynasties, this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, unless significant electoral reform happens quickly.

In fact, Indonesia has never seen so many family members of political elites compete in subnational elections. From 2015 to 2018, 117 dynastic politicians won direct elections for regional leadership positions (pilkada), while 85 others lost. This was a sharp increase on the 39 dynastic politicians who occupied subnational executive offices at the end of 2013.

Subnational elections do not only involve local dynasties – they also attract family members of national elites. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s son and son-in-law are now competing for mayorships in Solo (Central Java) and Medan (North Sumatra).

Others seeking office at the subnational level include family members of Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and some of Jokowi’s ministers, as well as family members of former or sitting governors, district heads, mayors, their deputies, and members of legislatures.

Based on my preliminary count, 146 dynastic politicians have indicated that they want to compete in the 2020 regional head elections (pilkada serentak). To run, they need to secure their political party’s nomination and most of them have already done so.

The government last week insisted that the regional head elections would go ahead on 9 December, despite a recent surge in Covid-19 cases across the country.

Indonesia is therefore likely to witness another huge increase in dynastic politicians, from the 52 who competed in the 2015 regional head elections, to more than 100 in the 2020 elections.

Scholars have pointed to weak party institutionalisation as the main culprit for the proliferation of political dynasties. Politicians who occupy elected office often also hold a key position in the organisational structure of their political parties, at the national or subnational level.

Occupying these strategic positions in political party structures enables them to easily promote and nominate family members in legislative or executive elections, particularly when the internal promotion and nomination mechanisms are unclear or not strictly enforced.

But even when they are unable to nominate their family members through their own political parties, their money and networks mean they can often secure nomination for their family members from other political parties.

Further, a mutually symbiotic relationship exists between dynastic politicians and political parties. Dynastic politicians need party endorsement to run in subnational or legislative elections. Running on a political party ticket is much simpler than running as an independent.

Likewise, political parties often seek dynastic politicians’ support in the legislative elections. Dynastic politicians are proven to be effective vote-getters. Thanks to their family connections, they also have the resources – money and networks – to run their campaigns effectively. Political parties also expect dynastic politicians to contribute to the party’s coffers, and to fund day-to-day party operations in the regions.

But the picture is more complicated than simply weak party institutionalisation and the mutually symbiotic relationship between dynastic politicians and political parties.

Joko Widodo puts his hands up at a campaign rally in Jakarta surrounded by crowds
Jokowi's sons are following in his footsteps. Pic: Lukas Kurniawan / Flickr

My interviews with party officials suggest that parties do not automatically nominate just any family member from a political dynasty. Party leadership at the national level also pays attention to the electability of the nominees, regardless of their familial ties with party elites.

If the party leadership thinks that a nominee has a low chance of winning, then the parties will nominate someone else, even if that person is not related to influential party elites.

Political parties also often prefer their own loyal cadres rather than newcomers in the nomination process, especially when the former have a proven track record and a commitment to advancing party objectives. In some cases, however, political parties are “forced” to nominate a family member of political elites at the expense of building strong party institutionalisation.

The most obvious example of this is the nomination of Jokowi’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka for mayor of Solo. Initially, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) preferred current Solo Deputy Mayor Achmad Purnomo, who was nominated by PDI-P’s local branch in Solo.

PDI-P Chair Megawati Soekarnoputri sent a strong signal that Gibran should be patient and wait his turn if he wanted to run in Solo – a traditional base for PDI-P and Jokowi’s hometown. Gibran, however, persisted.

This situation created a dilemma for PDI-P. On the one hand, nominating Achmad would send a positive signal to the party’s subnational branches that the national leadership respects the bottom-up nomination process.

On the other, Gibran, as the president’s son, was already very popular among voters in Solo, especially because the city was the launchpad for Jokowi’s political career. Moreover, if PDI-P did not nominate Gibran, then other political parties would be more than happy to do so, despite his insistence that he would only run on a PDI-P ticket.

If Gibran were nominated by another party, PDI-P would face big problems. It could jeopardise PDI-P’s vote share in Solo and Central Java in 2024, and it would certainly strain the relationship between PDI-P and Jokowi. Other parties also might seek to capitalise on the potential conflict and curry favour with the president, encouraging him to cater to their interests over those of PDI-P. After all, the Presidential Palace is still an important source of patronage for political parties, including PDI-P.

Facing this tough situation, PDI-P went for Gibran.

As I have argued elsewhere, the proliferation of political dynasties in Indonesia is a symptom of bigger institutional problems in the country’s democracy today. The story of Gibran’s nomination shows how the existing electoral regime could disincentivise political parties from building strong party institutionalisation. After all, both politicians and political parties are rational actors who act based on the incentive structures they face.

Containing the growth of political dynasties will require changing the electoral system. Introducing an anti-dynasty provision in the law on regional elections is not an option. Therefore, the barriers to entry for dynastic politicians must be raised by other constitutional means.

Increasing the minimum duration of party membership before being eligible for elected office through a political party channel would prevent instant nomination of dynastic politicians. A requirement to nominate a candidate through internal party convention could add another barrier.

Alternatively, lowering the barriers to entry for other candidates could improve the competitiveness of regional head elections. This could be accomplished by, for example, reducing the party nomination threshold or lowering the requirements for independent candidates to enter elections.

Other strategies, including more political education and strengthening the capacity of the Elections Supervisory Body (Bawaslu), are also essential.

But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even these strategies will not be adequate to curb the growth of political dynasties if patronage relations between dynastic politicians and political parties do not change too, and there is no sign that this is likely.

This article was co-published with the Indonesia at Melbourne blog.

Banner image: President Joko Widodo's son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is one of more than 100 dynastic politicians competing in the 2020 regional head elections. Source: Mohammad Ayudha / Antara


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