Jokowi takes a huge chance with son’s political elevation

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Editorial Board, ANU

Quite aside from the thorny issues of nepotism and dynasty-building, the Indonesian Constitutional Court’s decision to open a loophole that allows President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo’s son to participate in February’s presidential election is unlikely to stand as a great moment in national jurisprudence.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport to attend the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, 16 October 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Ken Ishii).Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport to attend the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, 16 October 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Ken Ishii).

Throughout 2023, a major question of speculation in Indonesia has been whether the 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who in 2022 was elected mayor of his and his father’s home city of Solo, would join the presidential ticket of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto. The move would both give Prabowo a seal of approval from an unprecedentedly popular, outgoing President, as well as strengthening Gibran’s future presidential potential.

Gibran’s candidacy was pushed by Prabowo, who was courting Jokowi’s support by posing as a dependable ally and successor. Jokowi, initially sceptical of his son’s electoral prospects on the national stage, and wary of accusations of nepotism, came to embrace the idea with the zeal of the convert.

The problem was that the election laws passed in 2017 barred individuals under the age of 40 from contesting presidential elections. Three lawsuits in the Constitutional Court sought to have the age limit lowered, or waived for citizens with previous experience in government. The court threw out the first two of these cases entirely. But in a decision on a third, it swiftly contradicted its previous two rulings, introducing a new loophole for those who had previously held elected office to be exempt from the age limit.

This was a decision tailor-made to enable a vice-presidential candidacy for Gibran — and it wasn’t lost on critics that the Court’s chief justice was the president’s brother-in-law and Gibran’s uncle. The decision was promptly excoriated by the press commentariat as judicial activism in service of dynasticism. Jokowi and the Prabowo campaign team were worried enough about the response to commission snap opinion polls to gauge the depth of any backlash.

The results of those polls don’t seem to have deterred the dynastic option. After a dramatic weekend of political manoeuvring, Prabowo announced that his party coalition had backed his choice of Gibran as his running mate and that they would formally register their candidacy on 25 October.

Gibran’s appointment has some electoral logic to it. With polls showing Prabowo’s candidacy largely dependent on the voter base of his losing 2019 campaign, his path to victory in 2024 requires holding that while making inroads among Jokowi voters in the Javanese heartland, where former Central Java governor and another presidential candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, is dominant.

Despite sharing with Ganjar an affiliation to the nationalist PDI-P party, Jokowi has made only the most perfunctory efforts to support his presidential campaign, and has instead moved to aid Prabowo, whom he sees as more independent and receptive to his post-presidential lobbying. Supplying his son to Prabowo’s campaign effectively amounts to a public endorsement, and an expectation that Jokowi loyalists now backing his partymate Ganjar will shift their support to Prabowo.

Getting the Jokowi seal of approval in this way would, however, be a double-edged sword for Prabowo, who for now is widely considered to be the frontrunner. With the presidential election expected to be decided in a runoff scheduled for late June 2024, over the course of a long campaign, attacks on Prabowo’s complicity in dynasty-building could gather momentum. An overt alliance with the Widodos also risks a backlash from the anti-Jokowi diehards now rallying around the underdog candidate, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, upon whose support Prabowo would depend in a runoff election.

PDI-P would see the cementing of that alliance through Gibran — like his father, a PDI-P member — as a grave betrayal on Jokowi’s part. But an acrimonious split between PDI-P and its president isn’t guaranteed, with the two now in a ‘mutual hostage situation’, writes Yoes Kenawas in this week’s lead article. While ‘Jokowi still needs PDI-P to ensure his government’s stability in his final year in office’, the party still ‘needs Jokowi as an electoral magnet for the February 2024 legislative elections.’

Regardless of the conflicts that arise once the legislative polls are done and dusted, Gibran’s elevation speaks to a big shift in the balance of power between Jokowi and PDI-P over the course of his presidency. His first term was marked by stormy relations with the party and its chairwoman, former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, over often small matters of policy and personnel choices. Now, enjoying the highest approval ratings of any outgoing Indonesian president and drawing on a broad base of elite support, he is emboldened to make the audacious move to support his son joining the presidential ticket of PDI-P’s major rival in the 2024 polls.

It also speaks to Jokowi’s late-term boldness that he thinks he can defy the unimpressive record of dynasty-building at the national level. Efforts by former presidents Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Megawati Soekarnoputri to install their children on presidential tickets having come to nothing.

This is the case despite the fact that political dynasticism is more generally on the rise, though, by regional standards, from a low base.

So far, Indonesian political dynasties have mostly remained localised and highly vulnerable to defeat by non-dynastic rivals. Indonesia is a long way from the situation in the Philippines, for instance, where political clans centred on powerful families have long been the main unit of political organisation, dominating local governments, congressional seats, and sometimes the presidency, across generations.

For Jokowi, to roll the dice on his son’s vice-presidential nomination is to raise the personal stakes involved in the 2024 elections: either securing a foothold for himself and his family in the political system for years to come or setting himself up for an embarrassing rendezvous with the Indonesian electorate’s ambivalence about dynasticism.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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