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Commentary: Politics is a family business in Indonesia – again

SINGAPORE: Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is expanding his family dynasty, son by son. The announcement that his eldest child Gibran Rakabuming Raka has been picked as Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s running mate in next year’s presidential election is just the latest in a series of political manoeuvres that have cemented his image as a Javanese kingmaker. It will also allow him to pull the strings behind the scenes long after he relinquishes power. 

This is deeply disappointing for the nation’s nascent democracy, the world’s third largest, and many Indonesians had hoped it wouldn’t happen. Mr Subianto will register his candidacy on Wednesday (Oct 25).

To understand what a huge departure this is from the man he used to be, it’s worth reflecting on how much Jokowi, as he is known, has changed during the course of his presidency. 

I first met him more than a decade ago, when he was governor of Jakarta. At the time, chatting to him in a leafy green park in his white crisp linen shirt and sandals, I was struck by his sincerity and disruptor mentality. As an outsider, he could see the obvious issues that needed to be fixed within the political establishment and there appeared to be a genuine desire on his part to change things. 

But that optimism and enthusiasm were pushed aside for the practicalities of doing politics in Indonesia. This included the weakening of the anti-corruption agency, and a drift toward authoritarian politics. Millions of people elected him as the leader of the world’s most populous Muslim nation in 2014, believing he would be different from the cast of characters in the Suharto era.

Jokowi’s victory was rightly heralded as a milestone, a coming of age for the country’s democracy – a sign that if a furniture maker from Solo could beat the odds, as one voter told me at the time, any outsider could do the same.

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PRACTICALITIES OF DOING POLITICS IN INDONESIA

How things have changed. If you want to do well in politics in Indonesia, it certainly helps to be related to Jokowi.

Take a look at the family tree. Not only is 36-year-old Mr Raka campaigning for the vice-presidential spot, in 2020 he was elected mayor of his home city of Solo. The young politician won by a landslide in large part thanks to Jokowi’s popularity and social capital. 

Then there’s the younger son, 28-year-old Kaesang Pangarep, better known for his YouTuber appeal than his political experience, who last month became chief of the Indonesia Solidarity Party (PSI), catering to younger voters.

And finally, son-in-law Bobby Nasution, voted in as mayor of Medan in 2020. His campaign drew heavily on family connections, building a perception that he would get special attention from the central government because of his privileged position. 

Jokowi has batted away any suggestion that his family benefits because he is the head of state. If Indonesians want to vote them in, he told me in an interview in 2020, I can’t stop them. It is the public’s decision. 

But even the charismatic leader, with his consistently solid approval ratings, won’t be immune to the public’s displeasure with what appears to be dynastic politics re-emerging in the archipelago. 

“A vote for Gibran as vice-president will ensure that Jokowi will be able to continue having behind-the-scenes influence during the Prabowo administration,” Alexander Arifianto, senior fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore told me. “Political dynasties in Indonesia are not unusual, but not particularly effective. They also invite public backlash once declared openly.” 

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