Why political dynasties persist in Indonesia

Why political dynasties persist in Indonesia
Ms Ratu Atut, seen here with deputy governor Rano Karno, is said to hold sway because her late father headed a martial arts association which protects the dynasty.

During Indonesia's Suharto years from 1966 to 1998, a joke making the rounds in Jakarta had it that the most important qualification to become president was having past experience as a president.

Since the only person with presidential experience was the incumbent Suharto, he was re-elected without challenge at every election during the New Order. No one dared step forward to offer himself as candidate. Political power remained concentrated in the hands of one man for three decades.

The sheer length of his rule led people to refer to it as a "dynasty", with Suharto holding political power like a Javanese king, while his children were given a free hand to build their business empires.

Following his downfall in May 1998, political reformers moved to end the "dynasty" by imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and divesting power from Jakarta to the regions under a decentralisation programme.

Ironically, the reforms also paved the way for the rise of political dynasties in the regions.

The issue came to the fore last month after a member of a political dynasty in Banten province was implicated in a corruption scandal involving the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Akil Mochtar.

There was outrage over the pervasiveness of the dynasty, headed by Banten Governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah. Family members were deputy regents, mayors, held seats in Parliament and headed a company controlling development projects.

Ms Ratu Atut was able to use her position to cement her family's hold over politics in Banten in just 10 years.

According to local newspaper reports, she mobilised government department heads, sub-district heads, village heads and teachers to support the candidacy of family members in the run-up to the elections.

They are not the only ones gripping on to power in their regions. Other dynasties include the Syahrul Yasin Limpo dynasty in South Sulawesi, the Sarundajang dynasty in North Sulawesi and the Sjachrodin dynasty in Lampung province in Sumatra.

Since their members have been elected directly in regional elections, such dynasties are not easily disbanded. Instead, they could even thrive in decentralised Indonesia if several conditions are allowed to persist.

The first is that political parties are not well institutionalised. The local branch of the Golkar party in Banten, for example, is controlled by Ms Ratu Atut's husband, Mr Hikmat Tomet. It is an open secret that the family holds sway in the province because Ms Ratu Atut's late father was a martial arts expert and head of a martial arts association which protects the dynasty. It is also said that the family has wide support from groups practising black magic.

Indonesian political parties select candidates based on money and relations with political office holders rather than appropriate qualifications. The prohibitive cost of contesting in elections bars new faces from politics.

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