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Indonesia’s Dramatic Turn Toward Semi-Authoritarianism and Dynastic Politics

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The Debate | Opinion

Indonesia’s Dramatic Turn Toward Semi-Authoritarianism and Dynastic Politics

President Joko Widodo is using the powers of the state in an unprecedented bid to shape his country’s political trajectory.

Indonesia’s Dramatic Turn Toward Semi-Authoritarianism and Dynastic Politics
Credit: Facebook/Presiden Joko Widodo

The impulse for building a political dynasty can be strong, especially in authoritarian states and even more so in dictatorships.  In a dictatorship where power is concentrated in one individual or clan, such as the Kim family in North Korea, a leader invariably puts a premium on loyalty and hence places trusted family members in key positions of power. Eventually a close family member, such as a sibling or offspring, is groomed as a successor.

Until recently Indonesia’s political elite have resisted the temptation of political dynasticism. Suharto, a dictator who ruled over Indonesia for more than three decades and resigned in 1998 in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, could have easily appointed one of his six children to succeed him. But he didn’t, and instead there was a constitutional transfer of power. And Suharto’s successors, who included his Vice President B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also did not attempt to play dynastic politics.

Although Megawati’s daughter, Puan Maharani, has successfully entered the world of Indonesian politics as a legislator  she only did so by running for office under her mother’s own political party, PDI-P. And much to Megawati’s credit, she refrained from using her position as chairwoman of PDI-P to place her daughter on the party’s ticket for next year’s presidential elections. Much the same can be said for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his ambition to have his son, Agus, to have a political career. But like Megawati, the former president never used his powers as president to place Agus in a favorable position. Instead his son managed to stitch together a party coalition that included his father’s Democratic Party to compete in the 2017 Jakarta governor election.

Indonesian political leaders’ adherence to the spirit of democratic republicanism was drafted in the constitution as an inspiration for other nations, especially for Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Unfortunately the victory of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the 2014 presidential elections marked the end of our success as a young democratic nation and the beginning of Indonesia’s backsliding toward semi-authoritarianism. It also ushered in for the first time a president looking to build a political dynasty, against the spirit of the constitution.

Jokowi has been in power for nearly nine years and is slated to leave the Presidential Palace next year after finishing his second and last term in office. During his time in office, many Indonesians and pro democratic leaders, including myself, have decried the demise of our democracy.  Rather than following suit with his predecessors, each of whom acted as guardians of democracy, Jokowi has instead remained largely reticent and consistently failed to take a leadership role when Indonesian democracy came under threat.

A prime example of Jokowi’s delinquency was evident when, in 2019, the National House of Representatives, or DPR, debated a controversial bill that, if passed, would severely weaken the national anti-graft agency, or KPK. Transparency International called on the DPR to reject the bill, yet Jokowi and his cabinet refrained from joining the debate in any meaningful manner.

As president of a democratic nation that has prided itself in fighting corruption, Jokowi should have used the powers of his office and bully pulpit to berate and urge lawmakers (which include a large number of his coalition members) not to pass the bill.

Jokowi ‘s reluctance cost us dearly. As predicted, the KPK became less of an anti-graft agency and more of a tool for the political elite. Corruption subsequently spiraled out of control: According to Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index, Indonesia experienced its worst decline in world rankings since the resignation of Suharto.

This stunning reversal in Indonesia’s democratic fortunes under Jokowi’s stewardship was compounded even further this past year when the DPR passed a draconian criminal code that has been harshly criticized by scores of Indonesians and human rights groups.

“Indonesia’s new criminal code contains oppressive and vague provisions that open the door to invasions of privacy and selective enforcement that will enable the police to extort bribes, lawmakers to harass political opponents, and officials to jail ordinary bloggers,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In one fell swoop, Indonesia’s human rights situation has taken a drastic turn for the worse, with potentially millions of people in Indonesia subject to criminal prosecution under this deeply flawed law.”

For pro-democratic leaders, myself included, next year’s exit of Jokowi from the political stage will be greeted with a sigh of relief and be seen as an opportunity for our new president to repair the severe damage inflicted upon Indonesia’s  democracy.

But recently, matters took a turn for the worse when the constitutional court – headed by Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law – rejected petitions to lower the age of election candidates but made an exception for regional leaders.

This court’s ruling was nothing less than a blatant conflict of interest. It has been known for some time among political insiders that Jokowi harbors ambitions for his son, Gibran Rakabuming, who like his father before him is the mayor of the Javanese city of Surakarta, to run for higher office. The court’s ruling paved the way for Gibran, 36, to do exactly that at next year’s presidential election.

After some behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Jokowi family, the top contender for next year’s presidential elections, Prabowo Subianto, decided along with his coalition partners to select Gibran as his running mate.

Then, after hearing voters were upset and accused Jokowi of abusing his powers, the president called for a meeting with Prabowo and the other two contenders in next year’s elections, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo. During the meeting Jokowi commented that, in fact, he is neutral, a stunning remark that only won him more criticism on social media.

Jokowi’s vision for a family dynasty doesn’t stop with Gibran. His youngest son, Kaesang Pangarep, is chairman of his own political party, the Indonesian Solidarity Party, and is slated to run in next year’s election as the mayor of Depok. His son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, is currently the mayor of the city of Medan and plans to run in the gubernatorial race in North Sumatra.

Jokowi’s family has tried to deflect criticism by arguing they are running for office in a democratic system and if they win it will be based on the merits of their candidacies. This is only partly true. Money rules in Indonesian politics and campaigns are notoriously expensive. Conglomerates typically finance campaigns and with Gibran now running for vice president it is a sure bet the conglomerates will generously bankroll the Jokowi family tor the purpose of winning their good graces.