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As Indonesia mulls a move away from direct presidential elections, is dynastic politics here to stay?

South China Morning Post - September 4, 2019

Johannes Nugroho – The election of President Joko Widodo in 2014 has often been described as a watershed moment in Indonesian political history.

Born outside the country's political elite, Jokowi, as he is commonly known, represents a new breed of politicians who have risen to prominence without the benefit of a famous family name or being related to a figure of influence.

Others in this category are Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini, previously a career civil servant, and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, who was an architect and mayor of Bandung before becoming governor.

So does this new crop of politicians represent a shift in a country where elite families traditionally control access to power and wealth, and is dynastic politics on its way out in Indonesia? For the moment, the answer appears to be a resounding no.

This is especially apparent after a recent proposal to amend the 1945 Constitution to restore full power to the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), a parliamentary chamber encompassing members of the House of Representatives plus representatives of groups in society, including the military. This could give the MPR a greater mandate than the president, and could once again give it the authority to appoint a president through an internal election, ending the current system of having the president directly elected by the people.

While Jokowi has indicated his opposition to the move, arguing that citizens should have the right to appoint their leader directly, one of the prominent politicians who has flouted this proposal is his chief political patron, Megawati Sukarnoputri – a former president and the eldest daughter of the country's first president Sukarno.

Megawati has been at the helm of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) since its foundation in 1999 and was last month re-elected "by acclamation" for another five years. She urged members at the party congress to commit to reinstating the earlier system.

As leader of the largest party in parliament, she is often described as the power behind the throne. And as the first Indonesian president who was related to an earlier president, Megawati's dynastic credentials remain unequalled.

Her own political career provides a glimpse into how dynastic politics works. After her father was toppled in 1966, she spent decades in the political wilderness until his successor, Suharto, finally relented and allowed her to run for parliament in 1987.

Even though she was politically inexperienced, her status as Sukarno's daughter proved attractive to Indonesians who had become disenchanted with Suharto's presidency and were nostalgic for her father's style of leadership.

After Suharto's fall from power in 1998, she became Indonesia's first female vice-president the following year and assumed the presidency herself in 2001 after president Abdurrahman Wahid's impeachment. However, in Indonesia's first direct presidential election in 2004, she lost to one of her own former ministers, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly known as SBY).

Despite her defeat, Megawati stayed on as chairwoman of PDI-P. In the 2009 presidential election, she ran against SBY for the second time and lost. In 2014, she changed tack by deciding against another run and instead backed Jokowi, contenting herself with the role of "kingmaker".

There are also political dynasties of more recent lineage, such as SBY's Cikeas clan, named after the area in West Java where the former president lives. While SBY's own parents came from humble stock, his father-in-law was Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, a powerful and well-connected general under Suharto.

The dynastic aspirations of the Cikeas clan first became apparent during a notorious political scandal involving the party SBY had formed, Partai Democrat (PD), in the run-up to the 2014 presidential election. PD held a convention to select its presidential candidate, but then unceremoniously cast the winner Dahlan Iskan aside and decided to "keep it in the family" by nominating SBY's brother-in-law instead.

The institution of direct gubernatorial and mayoral elections in 2005, aimed at decentralising power and bringing democracy to local government, has inadvertently given rise to a plethora of local dynasties eager to carve out their fiefdoms in the provinces.

Spouses and offspring of outgoing mayors and governors have been nominated to succeed their relatives. In 2016, at least 11 per cent of the sitting regional executives were related to their predecessors. The 2017 and 2018 regional elections saw at least 18 candidates who were related to incumbents who could not run again, having served two terms of office.

Notable among them was Banten province's political dynasty of Ratu Atut Chosiyah, who was a two-term governor until she was charged and convicted of corruption in 2014. Despite her tainted record, members of her family continue to dominate politics in the province. Chosiyah's son Andika Hazrumy was elected as deputy governor in 2017. Her sister and sister-in-law also successfully ran for offices as regents.

A great irony lies in the fact that Indonesia's democratic system allows dynastic politics to thrive, which was seen in a 2015 Constitutional Court ruling against a regulation banning relatives of sitting executives from running for office.

New leaders like Jokowi and Rismaharini, whose elections seemed to herald the breakdown of the dynastic tradition in politics, may end up becoming the progenitors of new dynasties.

Jokowi's eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, for example, has recently received overwhelming support from several political parties to run for the mayoralty of Solo, a position his father once occupied. Rismaharini's eldest son, Fuad Bernardi, is also being groomed to succeed his mother.

As Jokowi is barred from running again, the next presidential election in 2024 will probably feature a heated race between the heirs of various dynasties.

Megawati, for instance, may be trying to safeguard her two political heirs, daughter Puan Maharani and son Ananda Prabowo. As both lack charisma and mass appeal, they are unlikely to perform well in direct elections. So her party has announced its goal of having the MPR once again empowered to choose the president.

Achieving this objective will not be easy. PDI-P does not have an absolute majority in parliament and controls only 133 of the total 575 seats. But the fact that the party is prepared to mount a challenge to the constitution only goes to show the resolve of this wing of the political elite.

Dynastic politics in Indonesia is still a formidable force. Only increased discernment on the part of Indonesian voters can deal it a crippling blow. Until that happens, dynastic politics will continue to prosper.

[Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya, Indonesia.]

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/week-asia/opinion/article/3025445/indonesia-mulls-move-away-direct-presidential-elections-dynastic