Made Supriatma – Joko Widodo's son-in-law, Medan mayor Bobby Nasution, kicked off 2023 with a controversial remark which might prove to be more bane than boon for the aspiring rookie politician.
The mayor of Medan, Bobby Nasution – better known as President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's son-in-law – is caught up in controversy after he declared just after the new year that his city is "LGBT-free" (the acronym stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender").
Nasution's statement has riled Indonesia's LGBT community; his insensitivity is a reminder of past crises when there were increases in attacks on LGBT individuals partly sparked by government officials' anti-LGBT statements.
Bobby clarified that his statement was meant as a "joke", but he simultaneously warned that same-sex marriage was not recognised in Indonesian culture.
His offhand remark could have dire consequences in this critical year before the 2024 elections: at worse, it could be used by certain elements as license to commit violence or discrimination against vulnerable individuals or communities. For example, not long after Nasution spoke, the mayor of Bandung asked the local parliament to pass a regulation banning LGBT activity.
Why did Bobby Nasution need to make such an announcement?
It is not the first time that anti-LGBT sentiments have emerged from Jokowi's inner circle. Early in his presidency, some of his aides had displayed discriminatory views, but the president was silent. This, unfortunately, played into the hands of religious conservatives.
Bobby was elected in 2020 along with Gibran Rakabuming, Jokowi's eldest son, who contested and won the mayor's seat for Solo, the president's former position. Arguably, given Bobby's complete lack of political experience, his Jokowi connection was likely the main reason for his successful bid to be Medan's mayor. As one local politician said, "Access and proximity to the central government (read: Jokowi) will facilitate development in Medan City."
However, unlike Gibran who has a solid footing in Solo, Bobby is a relatively weak political player in Medan. Bobby joined the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in 2020, just ahead of the mayoral election. He won with just 53.2 per cent of the vote, in contrast with Gibran's solid performance of a 86.5 per cent winning vote in Solo. While a December 2022 poll by Medan City's Research and Development Agency (Balitbang) showed a 77.5 per cent approval rating for Bobby, that the PDI-P in Medan controls only one-fifth of the local parliamentary seats likely makes him more amenable to dramatic tactics like his anti-LGBT comment, to score political points. This could strengthen his appeal to more conservative voters in Medan.
Whatever Bobby's access is to Indonesia's central authority or the president, his influence will ebb or even end in 2024 when Jokowi steps down. Bobby might be thinking that he will lose the privileges and protection that he currently enjoys and must build his own political clout, especially if he wants to run for re-election in 2026 and even more so if he aspires to higher office, for instance, to be governor of North Sumatra in 2029.
Medan, the fourth largest city in Indonesia, is a multi-ethnic city which has been driven by capitalism since the colonial era. The Javanese are one-third of the population of Medan City, while the Bataks (Bobby's ethnicity) are divided into sub-tribes and constitute about 21 per cent and Indonesian-Chinese form about 11 per cent of the local population.
This demographic landscape is another major factor in electoral politics. In the 2010 mayoral election, after a run-off, two pairs of candidates (a Muslim Mandailing Batak, then incumbent Rahudman Harahap and Dzulmi Eldina versus Sino-Buddhist Sofyan Tan and Nelly Armayanti) faced off. The Rahudman-Eldin pairing won handily, sweeping 66 per cent of the votes. Bobby might be looking to history and Rahudman Harahap's example for his own political future, given that he is also a Mandailing Batak.
In a sense, opportunistic politicians like Bobby are common in Indonesian politics. The use of the religious or racial card by certain politicians has occurred during previous election campaigning at the national and local levels. There is little reason to expect 2024 to be different.
Political scientist Michael Buehler, analysing cases where district-level politicians and policymakers pushed for the implementation of sharia law, notes that Indonesian politicians' drive toward being more pro-sharia is more "transactional" than ideological. In his book, The Politics of Shari'a Law, Buehler reports that at the district level, in the period 1998-2013, as many as 443 sharia-based bylaws were created. Buehler observed that this increase in sharia bylaws was followed by a decline in the performance of Islamic political parties in local politics. Regional leaders who implemented these sharia bylaws mostly came from secular parties.
Bobby Nasution arguably falls into this latter category of politician. While he has not implemented sharia bylaws in Medan, by espousing an anti-LGBT attitude, he may have calculated that the religious right or conservative elements in Medan's Muslim and Christian communities may offer him their votes. By pandering to these voters, he could save his political future at the expense of Medan's (and Indonesia's) vulnerable LGBT community. His calculation might be off track, however, as Indonesia's Muslims are not as conservative as their politicians and policymakers might think.
[Made Supriatma is a Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.]