Ahead of Indonesia’s elections, critics slam Jokowi for nepotism and ‘dynastic politics’

A year before stepping down as Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo is facing serious allegations of establishing a political dynasty through nepotism.

The 61-year-old, known at home as Jokowi, is due to leave office in October 2024 after completing the maximum two terms as president.

But critics and analysts say the leader, who has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings throughout his near decade-long tenure, is attempting to retain power through members of his close family.

1. Eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka

Last month, his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, was officially named the vice presidential running mate of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto for the Feb. 14 general election race under the right-wing Gerindra Party.

That came just days before the country changed the eligibility criteria for presidential or vice-presidential candidates, allowing individuals under the age of 40 to register for either role if they previously held regional posts. Gibran is the mayor of Solo.

The constitutional court, which was helmed by the president’s brother-in-law Anwar Usman at that time,  was widely criticized for changing the law, which enabled Jokowi’s son to contest the election. The court’s ethics council has since ordered Anwar to be removed from his post as chief justice after finding him guilty of ethics violations.

According to a poll in mid-October by Kompas Research and Development, 60.7% of respondents consider the participation of Jokowi’s eldest son Gibran in the election as a form of dynastic politics.

“Most respondents see this kind of politics as tending to prioritize family interests over the interests of society,” Kompas said in a report. “It is no wonder then that more than half of respondents in this poll stated their disagreement with the practice of dynastic politics.”

2. Youngest son, Kaesang Pangarep

Separately, Jokowi’s youngest son, Kaesang Pangarep, was appointed chairman of the Indonesia Solidarity Party (PSI) in September, a few days after he officially became a party member.

PSI, which launched in 2018, focuses on young voters through issues like women’s rights, pluralism and corruption. It hopes to secure seats in the House of Representatives for the first time in the upcoming election.

3. Son-in-law, Bobby Nasution

Adding to Jokowi’s political chessboard is also his son-in-law Bobby Nasution, the current mayor of Medan.

Jokowi is “trying to retain political influence through his sons and son-in-law, Medan mayor Bobby Nasution,” said Julia Lau, senior fellow and co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Back home, Jokowi’s loyalists are reportedly outraged, Reuters reported, saying that cabinet ministers within his inner circle have accused him of seeking to hang on to power through judicial interference and nepotism.

According to Reuters, Andi Widjajanto, once Jokowi’s right-hand man, resigned from his post as governor of the National Resilience Agency after the constitutional court ruling. Andi, who called the timing of his resignation deliberate, said: “As someone that worked with Jokowi for a long time I am very, very disappointed in him.”

A political dynasty?

These are “nepotistic strategies,” said Vedi Hadiz, director and professor at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Jokowi’s sons are “part of the broader plan” to form a political dynasty before he leaves office, he continued.

“Kaesang Pangarep’s ascent into the leadership of the PSI is geared to help achieve the aim of gaining victory for the Prabowo-Gibran pairing, as the PSI has moved, also controversially, into the Prabowo orbit lately.”

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (2nd R), First Lady Iriana Widodo (2nd L) and sons Gibran Rakbuming Raka and Kaesang Pangarep (R) take part in a traditional ceremony during preparations for the wedding of Jokowi's daughter in Solo, Central Java on November 7, 2017. Jokowi's daughter Kahiyang Ayu will marry Bobby Nasution in Solo on November 8. / AFP PHOTO / Anwar MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read ANWAR MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images)

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, second from the right, with his wife Iriana Widodo and sons Gibran Rakbuming Raka, far left, and Kaesang Pangarep, far right, taking part in the traditional wedding ceremony in preparation for the wedding of Jokowi’s daughter in Solo, Central Java on Nov. 7, 2017.

Afp Contributor | Afp | Getty Images

Lau echoed the same sentiments.

“Kaesang, 28, is a political neophyte and running on his father’s coattails,” she added, noting how the PSI has now become “a vehicle to channel the Widodo clan’s aspirations.”

CNBC reached out to Indonesia’s presidential palace for comment but did not hear back.

These developments don’t bode well for the country’s already fragile state of democracy, which only emerged 25 years ago after decades of authoritarian rule.

It also weighs heavily on Jokowi’s reputation. The former furniture salesman captured national hearts when he became the country’s first leader who didn’t come from a political or military background, raising hopes of a pushback against elitist-led systems.

But as his sons climb up the political ladder, critics are now drawing comparisons with existing political dynasties around Southeast Asia.

“Many liberals and intellectuals in Indonesia are now calling for a deeper look into the corruption and weakening of several democratic institutions in the country, their constitutional court, the anti-corruption commission, etcetera, that has occurred on Widodo’s watch,” said Lau from ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Following failed attempts by his team to extend Jokowi’s tenure, she said, “this latest series of moves seems to be their way of trying to claw a permanent hold for themselves but may well backfire.”

“What is sure is that Widodo is playing a risky game in the last phase of his presidency,” Lau added.

The ‘Jokowi effect’

Analysts are now expecting what they call “a Jokowi effect” for the PSI and Gerindra parties.

Choosing Gibran, Jokowi’s eldest son, “is a clear signal by Prabowo’s camp to associate its presidential bid with the successes of Jokowi-era programmes and policies,” global research firm Asia House said in a report.

“The nomination of Gibran as his vice-presidential candidate is likely to win Prabowo votes from Central Java — where Jokowi’s family is originally from — and shift the support of Jokowi’s supporters from Ganjar and PDIP to the Prabowo camp.” 

The PDIP, or Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, is the country’s ruling party.

The PSI is also seeking to capitalize on the popularity of Jokowi, who has unusually high approval ratings for a two-term president.

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“The idea is that the popularity would rub off on Kaesang Pangarep and improve the electoral performance of the PSI,” explained Hadiz from the University of Melbourne.

“If that is accomplished convincingly, the Jokowi family can effectively take complete control of a political party. It never had such control before given the Soekarno family’s grip on the PDIP,” he said, referring to referring to Indonesia’s first president.

Meanwhile, the PDIP is increasingly distancing itself from Jokowi. His relationship with PDIP chair Megawati Sukarnoputri is now under pressure following his sons’ pivot to other parties. 

“While some interpret Gibran’s candidacy as evidence of Jokowi’s involvement in dynastic politics, it’s also perceived as a snub to PDIP, the party that both supported Jokowi’s presidential bids and backed Gibran when he ran for mayor,” Asia House said.

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