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.

The second reason political dynasties persist is that current laws on regional elections are not enforced.

For example, local civil servants are banned from electioneering. In reality, however, they help campaign for the incumbent or their relatives. These candidates routinely use state facilities during campaigning, giving them an unfair (and illegal) advantage over their rivals.

Lampung Governor Sjachroedin Zainal Pagaralam helped his son, Mr Rycko Menoza, get elected as regent of South Lampung in June 2010. But the loser, incumbent regent Wendy Melfa, filed a suit in the Constitutional Court alleging money poilitics and the use of state resources by Mr Rycko's family in the campaign. The court, however, upheld Mr Rycko's victory.

The third reason has to do with the behaviour of voters. In an academic paper, analysts Yoes C.Kenawas and Fitriani of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies argued that the Indonesian electorate no longer look to ideology and party platforms. Instead, voting patterns are now more influenced by personalities.

"This so-called 'idol syndrome' is why celebrities, TV personalities and members of political dynasties have a bigger chance of being elected," they added. "They enjoy a high level of popularity and are more visible in the media."

In sum, political dynasties imply the perpetuation of the three evils of the New Order - corruption, collusion and nepotism - that the reformers want to stamp out. Hence, the current pressure on the government to change the situation.

A Bill on regional elections that the Home Ministry tabled in the national parliament Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat in January contains amendments to the current law that would bar candidates who are relatives of the incumbents from contesting.

They can take part only in the next election to prevent consecutive succession.

While this could hamper an incumbent's plan to have an heir or his wife to succeed him, it does not stop him from appointing a proxy, supposedly a non-relative, who would do his bidding once elected.

One drawback, however, is that such anti-dynasty clause contravenes the principle of equality for all citizens.

A long-term solution could perhaps be found in political parties.

One suggestion is for the government to introduce a new law that would make it mandatory for political parties to have a democratic mechanism in the selection of candidates, either through convention or internal election. This would force parties to select candidates based on merit rather than family ties.

There should also be a term limit for top party posts to prevent any group from clinging on to power indefinitely.

Strict enforcement of the law on elections and regional governance must also be observed. Incumbent executives should not be allowed to get away with corruption, abuse of power and campaign violations.

But even with these initiatives, there is no guarantee that Indonesia can rid itself completely of political dynasties.

Many are deeply entrenched, with a few having lineage that stretches back to the Suharto era. What is important is that measures must be in place to prevent any group from having a monopolistic hold on power in the regions.

salim@sph.com.sg

.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES