Jemma Purdey – Prabowo Subianto's recent announcement that his niece, Rahayu Saraswati (Sara) Djojohadikusumo, 34, would become a deputy chair of the family party, Gerindra for the 2020-2025 term, comes as no surprise to those who have tracked her political career over the past six years.
For more than a decade, Gerindra, and the family who control it, have laid their plans for Sara's ascension to the helm of this political dynasty.
Last month, the daughter of Prabowo's tycoon brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo and his wife Anie, announced she would run for deputy mayor of Tangerang Selatan with Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician Muhamad. Sara's unexpected defeat in the 2019 Legislative Elections, which saw her (temporarily) crash out of politics, is behind her.
Of course, while Prabowo is around, Gerindra will remain his party. But as those who study political dynasties know too well, a plan for succession and regeneration is key to longevity.
The Djojohadikusumo family were aware of this from the outset. Hashim, not Prabowo, was the driving force behind Gerindra as a political vehicle, not only for his brother but also for his children and those of his sisters. It was a family project from the outset. Sara, her older brother Aryo and their cousin, Budisatrio Djiwandono (son of Prabowo's and Hashim's sister, Bianti), were all elected to the national legislature (DPR) for the 2014-2019 period.
Like their father and uncle, Sara and her siblings were educated outside Indonesia – in Sara's case, in Switzerland, Singapore and the US. Sara credits her parents for instilling in her a sense of philanthropy, service and social justice. She plays a prominent role in her mother's charity, Wadah Foundation, and her own Parinama Astha Foundation against human trafficking.
A trained actress, sometime TV presenter, and recently, host of a little-watched YouTube chat show 'Let's Talk with Sara', Sara says her political ambitions were slow to emerge. Initially, she was "allergic to politics". Together with her more eager but far less talented brother, Aryo, Sara was a founding member of Gerindra's youth organisation, Tidar. But in the early days of the party, she was unsure about giving up her acting dreams to join the family business. Yet while she prevaricated, Hashim always had his daughter at the centre of his plan.
As I have described elsewhere, Gerindra was largely conceived by Hashim in collaboration with US political consultant and strategist, Rob Allyn. Hashim hired Allyn to run the party's first campaign in the 2009 elections.
Allyn has said that when planning the campaign, which Hashim personally bankrolled, he spotted portraits of two young soldiers on the wall of Hashim's office. The portraits were of Subianto and Sujono, Hashim's uncles, both national heroes of the independence struggle. The seed was sown. Allyn brought in his filmmaker son, Conor and they made three films inspired by the stories of Subianto and Sujono.
The first film, Merah Putih, was released in 2009, followed by Darah Garuda – Merah Putih II in 2010 and Hearts of Freedom in 2011. The films became a major part of building the profile of Gerindra and the family as it looked toward the 2014 presidential race. Sara starred in the trilogy, and is also listed as an associate producer.
These films were a platform for the construction of a narrative around the Djodjohadisuksumo family that reached back generations (even before Prabowo and Hashim's famous father, economist and minister Sumitro Djojohadikusumo). The films depicted the family as revolutionary heroes who were present at the founding of the nation itself. They told a story of the family performing many generations of 'service', of fulfilling their 'obligation' to the Indonesian nation.
After the Merah Putih trilogy, Sara appeared in a small number of films, including the somewhat successful action thriller Java Heat (2013), also directed by Allyn. But her position in the family as an articulate, high-profile and popular figure soon saw her embark on a political career.
In the 2014 Legislative Elections, Sara won a seat in Central Java (Jawa Tengah IV, including Sragen, Karanganyar, Wonogiri). Her brother Aryo won a Jakarta seat (DKI Jakarta III). As a legislator, Sara was determined to contribute in areas related to her activism: women's rights, child protection, and human trafficking.
She was a member of DPR Commission VIII, which oversees religion, social affairs and women's empowerment, and was chair of Gerindra's women's advocacy division. Sara's two children, Narendra and Wira, were born during her term in the legislature and her pregnancies and motherhood have featured heavily in her social media posts. Wira was born with Down syndrome, and Sara has since become a leading spokesperson and advocate for children with disability.
By all accounts, Sara was a conscientious and hard-working performer in the DPR and was well regarded across party lines, including by those within the administration. Jokowi selected her to join diplomatic missions overseas, including to Australia, where her fluency in English and international outlook impressed.
Sara also proved that she was willing to take up a fight on principle, even when it meant challenging the position of some of Gerindra's coalition allies. Toward the end of her term, she was a vocal advocate for the bill on the elimination of sexual violence (RUU PKS), which has stalled in the legislature. As a demonstration of her clout within the party, this debate led to Gerindra splitting with its coalition partner, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
During her term in the legislature, Sara's star continued to rise. In 2018, there were rumours about her running for deputy governor of Jakarta. In the leadup to the 2019 elections, an attempt was made to move from her safe, though marginal, Central Java seat to a more prominent Jakarta seat, representing the West Jakarta, North Jakarta and Thousand Islands electoral districts. The well-made plan, however, failed dramatically. Neither Sara, nor her advisors, saw the possibly of a defeat coming.
A once avid user of social media, Sara turned off her accounts, saying that she needed to retreat from public life. Her disbelief and anger over her defeat was palpable. She convinced the party to back her challenge of the final result at the Constitutional Court, but this also failed. The most votes went to Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) leader Grace Natalie, a candidate who shares many personal attributes with Sara, despite their parties' vastly different profiles and policy positions.
In the aftermath of her electoral defeat, Sara declared she might be done with politics, speaking of the need for a new challenge. She continued her advocacy for women, children and disability issues and, in early 2020, launched 'Let's Talk with Sara'. In recent months, however, she has slowly reassumed a role at the centre of Gerindra's political machine.
The Sara who returned to politics in 2020 now appears more self-assured, and confident in her ambitions. She has made it clear that she is returning at the invitation of her party, with a mandate to serve.
But she faces several challenges. The most significant of these is that, like her parents, Sara is Christian. She is an active member of an evangelical congregation and is open about her spirituality and religious influences. Although Gerindra has a pluralist platform, Prabowo's close relationships with Muslim groups, including Islamist groups, provides an ideological incoherence that must be sorted out. Questions therefore remain as to how this generation of the family will reconcile Gerindra's links to Islamic groups and parties like PKS into the future.
Sara and her brother were raised and educated in the west and are heirs to a vast fortune. How will young adults raised with such privilege and wealth convince Indonesians of their understanding of, and commitment to, an economy for the people (ekonomi kerakyatan) and the welfare of the poor?
As she plays a larger role in Gerindra, Sara will, quite rightly, continue to be challenged about her privilege and position in a dynastic family. But the increasing and near 'normalcy' of dynastic politics in Indonesia over recent years has diminished this critique. At any rate, Sara will likely remain dismissive. She told Detik last year, "The media often likes to associate everything I do with my identity as Prabowo Subianto's niece.... But I know myself deep down, what do I have to be ashamed of? In fact, I am proud. They want to use that to pull me down and knock me down and discredit me as if I was nothing without my uncle or father."
In her first stint at public service Sara performed better than most from among the (growing) cohort of politicians from dynastic families. But her loss in the 2019 elections showed that there are no guarantees, not even for those with wealth, power and incumbency.
But Indonesian politics offers multiple pathways to success. Sara Djojohadikusumo now goes forward armed with Gerindra leaders' clear endorsement of a plan of succession that puts her in the front line.
[Dr Jemma Purdey is Research Fellow at Monash University in the Faculty of Arts and the Australia Indonesia Centre. She is the author of Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia 1996-1999, published by NUS Press.]