Indonesia's local elections raise questions over political dynasties

JAKARTA - Make no mistake: the name helps.

For Ms Rahayu Saraswati Djojohadikusomo, or Sara to her friends, it's one of the biggest names in Indonesian politics.

The 34- year-old's father is tycoon Hashim Djojohadikusomo, which Forbes estimates is worth US$800 million (S$1.1 billion).

Ms Rahayu's uncle is Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, the two-time presidential candidate.

Ms Rahayu on Friday (Sept 4) officially registered her candidacy for deputy mayor of South Tangerang, one of Jakarta's satellite towns at December's local elections.

She said she wanted to gain some executive experience with the effort, after losing her parliamentary seat at last year's elections. But her candidacy comes amid a surge of candidacies hailing from political families that has drawn criticism from democracy advocates.

"If I'm not allowed to run because of my relatives isn't that discrimination? This is a democracy. People can choose," she told The Straits Times on Friday (Sept 4).

Ms Rahayu says, like scions of political families elsewhere: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, the outgoing prime minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, and former president George W. Bush and his father, she also has a right to throw her hat in the ring.

"It happens everywhere," Ms Rahayu said

Still, when the Indonesian Elections Commission will unveil its official list of candidates on Sunday (Sept 6) for 270 local races, it will contain a dizzying number of names linked to big political families.

The candidates include President Joko Widodo's son, Mr Gibran Rakabuming Raka, seeking his father's old job as mayor of Surakarta in Central Java. Mr Gibrang's opponent is Putri Woelan Sari Dewi, granddaughter of the city's sultan, Pakubuwono XII.

Mr Joko's son- in- law Mr Bobby Nasution, is making a tilt for mayor of Medan, the country's third largest city.

Mr Joko's vice president, Ma'ruf Amin, will see his grandson Adly Fairuz, make a run at the role of deputy regent of the industrial area of Karawang in West Java.

More than two decades since Indonesia's embraced direct elections, family connections still play an outsized role in winning party backing to run for office.

And party backing is key to elected politics.

Candidates must win support from political parties that control 20 per cent of seats in the legislature. By contrast, independent candidates have the more arduous task of collecting names from 10 per cent of the electorate to appear on the ballot.

Samuel Waileruny, a human rights lawyer, had to drop out of his 2018 bid for governor of Maluku because he was 42,000 names short of the 122,000-minimum he needed before his name could go on the ballot.

Mr Samuel said he faced unsympathetic government officials and steep organising costs, from needing to island hop for names around the provincial archipelago.

"We found it very difficult as you know we are living in a province of many islands," Mr Samuel said.

Mr Joko has said his son and son- in- law have a right to seek elected office but vowed not to campaign for them.

But analysts said with so many dynastic candidates on the ballot it will be tough for the political parties to renew themselves with fresh ideas while addressing long standing issues including pervasive corruption.

"The enduring power of dynasties reflects weaknesses in Indonesia's democratic system including widespread corruption, a lack of policy debate in political parties and high barriers to entry for independent candidates," said Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

To be sure, Indonesia has made progress, since it adopted direct elections after the resignation of former president Suharto, said Mr Bland, who authored the book Man Of Contradictions: Joko Widodo And The Struggle To Remake Indonesia which was published this week

One example: in uncontested races, voters have the option of nixing a candidate and their deputy by ticking an empty box, as happened at the mayoral election in Makassar races in 2018.

Mr Prabowo is chairman and founder of Ms Rahayu's Gerindra party.

Under Indonesia's complicated election rules, the Constitutional Court ruling that dealt her a defeat last year meant another Gerindra candidate returned to parliament to represent Jakarta's third district - not the niece of the chairman.

"That outcome shows I'm not abusing my position," said Ms Rahayu, who says she has lent her name to causes advocating for women and children and an anti-human trafficking.

Even so, roughly 130 relatives of current and past office holders have been seeking their party imprimatur at the next election, according to Yoes Kenawas a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, in Illinois.

That tally will change when the final list is released, Mr Yoes said.

Indonesia's limit of two terms for executive office leaves some families turning to relatives to stay relevant after stepping down, Mr Yoes said.

"For politicians," Mr Yoes said, "grooming an heir is a rational choice."

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