There is something that we didn’t earlier discussed on page of the Modern Diplomacy.
Do you remember the prime time television series Dynasty that aired for nine seasons from 1981 to 1989? It was about the lives and loves of the wealthy Carrington family, headed by the powerful oil magnate Blake Carrington.
Its popularity stemmed from the drama-filled episodes full of unexpected twists and turns, lavish lifestyles, good casting and, of course, great-looking actors. In many ways it was the American fantasy, but at the same time, the creators, Esther and Richard Shapiro, wanted to create “a strong […] family where people were in conflict but loved each other in spite of everything”.
Dynasty was so popular that a reboot was made in 2017, lasting until 2022.
Well if you’re in Indonesia and into soaps about dynasties, you’re in luck. It’s a constant reboot! Since the regime of Soeharto (1966-1998), which naturally tried to bequeth a political dynasty, we have had two others, that of Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia’s fifth president (2001-2004) and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s sixth president, who had two terms (2004-2014).
Megawati is the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president (1945-1966), and is considered the matriarch of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Her daughter, Puan Maharani, 50, is the speaker of the House of Representatives and has been groomed to replace her mother as chair of the PDI-P someday.
Prananda Prabowo, 53, Megawati’s son from her first husband, the late Capt. Surindro Supjarso, chairs the party’s division for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), the creative economy and digital technology.
Guruh Soekarnoputra, 71, Megawati’s youngest brother, is in his sixth term as House lawmaker, having started in 1992, while Puti Guntur Soekarno, 52, Megawati’s niece from her eldest brother Guntur Soekarnoputra, 79, is a House member for the period of 2019-2024.
Is it surprising, then, that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who was the PDI-P presidential candidate in 2014 and 2019, would follow the example of his party boss?
Jokowi started out as mayor of Surakarta (2005-2012) before becoming Jakarta governor (2012-2014) but left that position to take the nation’s top job. After two terms, his presidency will officially end in October of this year. But will it really?
Calls for a third term from Jokowi’s supporters were knocked down as it would have been unconstitutional. But Indonesia is the land of semua bisa diatur (everything can be arranged), and politics makes for strange bedfellows. So why not endorse your erstwhile rival in both 2014 and 2019, Prabowo Subianto, 72? Jokowi had already taken him in his embrace by appointing him as defense minister in August 2019. Never mind that Prabowo is associated with alleged human rights abuses or the fact that in August 1998 he was discharged by the Military Officers Council of Honor, who had found him guilty of “misinterpreting orders”.
Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, followed in his father’s footsteps to become mayor of Surakarta in 2021. But instead of becoming Jakarta governor as a stepping stone to the presidency, Gibran is running for vice president alongside Prabowo, only after the minimum age to run in presidential election – originally 40 – was changed by the Constitutional Court. It did help that the court’s then-chief justice, Anwar Usman, was Gibran’s uncle.
Sure, Usman was removed from his top position for having seriously violated the code of ethics, but the rule lowering the minimum age was allowed to stand. How convenient.
Jokowi’s second son, Kaesang Pangarep, 29, was suddenly appointed chair of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) for the 2023-2028 period after only being a party member for two days. Talk about instant!
The PSI is a small party that has not passed the legislative threshold, but has it been made into the ersatz party of the Jokowi family? The party is not shy about it, stating in big red banners “PSI is Jokowi’s party” in the Semarang stadium. Judging from the number of PSI billboards with photos of Prabowo and Gibran, clearly the PSI’s campaign funds are big. Wonder where they get it from? Hmm.
Whatever happened to the PSI as the party of Indonesia’s millennials or even Gen Z? Under Kaesang, it will simply become a tool for Jokowi’s dynastic interests.
All these political shenanigans would be pretty remarkable even in a soap opera. But unlike Dynasty which was an American fantasy, Indonesia’s dynastic tradition in politics could become its democracy’s nightmare.
Academics and civil society activists decry dynastic politics as being the death of democracy in Indonesia, but it seems that the Indonesian electorate doesn’t care. Despite Jokowi’s blatant opportunism, instead of creating a constitutional crisis, his approval ratings remain high, above 70 percent. How is this possible?
Perhaps Jokowi was just following Soeharto’s developmentalist playbook by focusing on infrastructure development and also ensuring that people’s basic needs were met. Under Jokowi’s administration, there has been much bansos (social assistance) for the poor, not to mention universal healthcare (BPJS) and other social safety net programs.
While dynastic politics is the antithesis of democracy and meritocracy, the fact of the matter is that it exists worldwide. It exists in the United States, the most famous being the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers and many others. Despite being a parliamentary democracy, in India there are several, the most famous, of course, being the Nehru-Gandhi family. In Europe “from the ancient corridors of European palaces to the modern corporate boardrooms, certain families have made enduring marks on the history and development of Europe” (Raul Jansen, 2023).
A book by Daniel M. Smith Dynasties and Democracy (2018) with the subtitle “The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan” is self-explanatory.
Each country has their own dynastic traditions and ways of reconciling them with democracy. How about Indonesia historically?
Perhaps we could learn from the life of Indonesia’s national hero, Prince Diponegoro (1785-1855), who specifically instructed that, on his death in distant Makassar, his personal keris should be buried in his grave as none of his descendants were capable of assuming his political role as Just King and leader of the holy war against the Dutch. True statesmen like Diponegoro are prepared to sacrifice the three ‘Fs” – freedom, family, finance – for their country – rather than create personal dynasties.
In 1964, Harry Benda, a well-known Indonesianist from Yale University, said the Republic of Indonesia would never fully become a democratic country because its elites helped build a political culture that inherited feudal political traditions of the past. Approximately six decades have passed, and Benda’s anxiety has found its relevance in the widespread perpetuation of power based on lineage.
So that’s it? Just sit back and enjoy the show? After all, democracy is declining worldwide and with two major wars and many ongoing smaller ones, plus climate change. Perhaps some analysts would say democratic dynasties are the least of our problems.
Not so fast! I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but dynasties should have no place in a democracy as their decision-making will invariably be conducted for their own self-interest rather than the greater good.
Indonesia has been a procedural democracy for too long. It’s time to step up political education; revitalize democratic institutions such as the House and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to serve the purposes they were created for; and reignite the true spirit of democracy by not electing those with dynastic ambitions to office!
*The writer is the author of “Julia’s Jihad”. She is a public intellectual, columnist and author based in Jakarta.
** Shorter (earlier) version of the text has been published by the Jakarta Post. This is an extended version of the text.