Opinion & Analysis

Asia's Political Dynasties: Indonesia

Political dynasties remain a notable constant in the political life of Indonesia, still the world’s largest democracy.

It’s a phenomenon across many nations in Asia and is considered by some to be a barrier to political competition and the further development of democracy in Indonesia. An end to KKN--the Indonesian acronym for corruption, collusion and nepotism, is a key demand of Indonesia's growing political reform movement.

Dynasties have been a feature of Indonesian politics since the country's independence in 1945.

Achmed Sukarno, Indonesia's first President. Photo: Indonesia Government

During the era of President Sukarno (1945-1967), many regional and military leaders, as well as members of the national parliament, came from politically-influential families, often also connected to the military.

Sukarno came to power promising to end corruption, but under his regime KKN increased. Despite this he remained hugely popular, guiding Indonesia to independence and promoting his “guided democracy: alongside a distinctly anti-american stance in the early 1960’s.

During his 1964 Independence Day speech, Sukarno publicly denounced the United States, sparking an anti-American campaign in which American companies were threatened, American movies and journalists banned, and the American flag often torn apart. The following year Sukarno announced that Indonesia was withdrawing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Ultimately, the massive corruption inside Sukarno’s government, alongside the expensive conflict with Malaysia over plans by Britain to grant independence led to Sukarno’s fall and the rise of General Suharto.

His “New Order” regime (1967-1998), was marked by not only a massive and bloody purge of Indonesia’s communist party, but also a policy whereby government actively promoted the rise of a small group of "functional groups" to control various sectors of society and the economy.  

These groups were often led by members of powerful families, and they were given exclusive rights to control certain industries and professions. The level of corruption involved in such a scenario is eye-watering, with the Suharto regime often presented as one of the most corrupt administrations of the last century. 

President Suharto in the 1990's, he died in 2008 aged 86.

Suharto oversaw a centralised and military-dominated government, and using the assistance of other politically connected families he was able to maintain control across a sprawling and diverse Indonesia. For most of his presidency, Indonesia experienced significant industrialisation, economic growth, and improved levels of education.

But Suharto used a system of patronage to ensure loyalty within is regime, encompassing leading members of the national elite and even his critics. In exchange for business opportunities or political positions Suharto gained their support. With the Armed Forces (including its large intelligence wing) and huge natural resources like oil and minerals, Suharto became the absolute head of a national political and economic system which funnelled billions into his own pocket, and to those who chose to support him at the very top.

After the eventual fall of Suharto in 1998, the democratic reforms that followed have led to the opening of political space for new groups, but dynastic politics remained prevalent in Indonesian politics.

The new political landscape in the post-Suharto era has enabled new political actors, including businesspeople and intellectuals, to take part in politics.

However, the electoral system in place also created an incentive for them to form political parties and align with existing political actors, and many of these actors come from political dynasties. 

Megawati Sukarnoputri, eldest daughter of Sukarno and Indonesian President 2001-2004. Photo: Indonesia Government

Other notable political families in Indonesia include :

  1. The Habibie family: B.J. Habibie, who served following Suharto as President of Indonesia from 1998 to 1999, is the father of Ilham Akbar Habibie, who was as a member of parliament and a member of the People's Representative Council.
  2. The Yudhoyono family: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another ex-general who served as President of Indonesia from 2004 to 2014, is the father of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, who served as a member of parliament and as the Governor of Jakarta.Another supposed reformer elected on an anti-corruption ticket, his administration was rife with graft and embarrassing corruption scandals
  3. The Megawati family: Megawati Sukarnoputri, who served as President of Indonesia from 2001 to 2004, is the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno. Her daughter Puan Maharani also a member of parliament and a former Cabinet Minister.
  4. The Widodo family: Joko Widodo, the current President of Indonesia, his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is current Mayor of Surakarta, a city in Eastern Java

Today, political dynasties continue to play a significant role in Indonesian politics, with many families holding multiple political positions at the national and local levels.

Joko Widido is the first President not to have come from Indonesia’s military or political elite, and he too ran on an anti-corruption platform But the Widodo dynasty seems to be falling into place in a familiar pattern.

For the Indonesian voter, the growing power and influence of political cliques has always grated, and in 2015 the parliament passed a law prohibiting relatives of incumbent MP’s from running for regent, mayor or governor. The law was later deemed unconstitutional by the courts and overturned.

Yet despite the public’s distaste, politicians keep trying to entrench power within their families—often because the opportunities to make money that come with a political office are too good to turn down. Political parties do little to discourage nepotism, due to their reliance on cut-through candidates like Widodo. They need politicians with the vital name recognition to win elections, and if the name is that of a political dynasty, all the better.

Joko Widodo, seventh and current President of Indonesia. Photo: Indonesia Government

This political phenomenon is seen by some as a hindrance to the development of a truly competitive democratic system in Indonesia, as it can arguably limit political participation, and the emergence of new leaders.

Despite the debate around the question of family influence, there are currently no specific laws or regulations in place in Indonesia to limit the influence of political dynasties.

However, the calls from political reformers and civil society organisations for change has not abated, and proposals currently being debated include :

  • Introducing term limits for politicians: This would prevent politicians from holding office for an indefinite period, and would open up more opportunities for new leaders to emerge.
  • Limiting the number of family members who can hold office at the same time, preventing one family from dominating a particular political office or area.
  • Providing better access to political funding and resources for new and independent candidates: This would level the playing field and make it easier for people outside of political dynasties to compete in elections.
  • Campaign finance reform to limit the influence of wealthy donors and political dynasties
  • Prohibiting political actors from having a dominant role in business sector.
  • Encouraging more effective political education, civic engagement, and media literacy as ways to increase informed public participation across the country.

While the debate waxes and wanes the status quo remains, and the constitutional  minefield that is the Indonesian political landscape means it could be some time before appropriate and workable law could be developed.

Banner Image: President Joko Widodo (with mic) with members of Indonesia's special forces Kopasus unit. Photo/Flickr

- Asia Media Centre