Running against an obscure rival, a son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo is expected to cruise to victory in next month’s election for the post his father once held as mayor of Surakarta.
The political aspirations of his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, have raised suspicions that the president, widely referred to as Jokowi, is forming a new dynasty to elbow its way in among Indonesia’s old elites.
Unrelated to the powerful families that have dominated government, business and the military in Southeast Asia’s largest nation, Jokowi was regarded as an outsider when he was elected in 2014.
During six years in office, Jokowi has prioritized infrastructure and development projects, but some Suharto-era cronies remain powerful more than two decades after the resignation of Indonesia’s long-term president.
Jokowi rejects the notion that his son’s entry into politics shows that a new dynasty is about to join the club.
“Everyone in Indonesia has political rights. I never directed my children,” Jokowi said. “It’s a competition. You can win or you can lose.”
Gibran is among a host of political newcomers with influential relatives in the world’s third-biggest democracy, and analysts say that Indonesia’s politics is increasingly becoming a family affair.
Compared with regional elections in 2015 when there were 52 “dynastic” candidates, there are 146 this year, said Yoes Kenawas, a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Among them are not only the president’s son, but also his son-in-law, the vice president’s daughter, and the niece of the minister of defense. In one constituency on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta, three candidates are dynastic.
“Democracy is just facilitating a few people to access power,” elections watchdog Perludem executive director Titi Anggraini said, bemoaning the trend.
Indonesian politics has long been dominated by kingmakers in Java, the most populous island on the planet, and home to the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
However, in the president’s Javanese hometown of Surakarta, a city better known as Solo, about 500km from Jakarta, Gibran’s candidacy has generated its own special controversy.
Halim HD, a 69-year-old activist, has long been a thorn in the side of well-connected politicians.
Two years ago, when a relative of then-Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla ran unopposed in an election in Sulawesi, Halim started an “empty box” campaign — a push to vote for the blank box that appears on ballot papers in uncontested polls.
The empty box won.
This year, when it appeared that the president’s son, backed by a coalition of nine political parties, might have no opponent, Halim revived the campaign.
“In the context of modern politics, these empty boxes are a sign something is wrong,” he said.
Ultimately, just hours before registration closed on Sept. 6, a rival candidate emerged.
Bagyo Wahyono, a 59-year-old tailor, had last year given provisional notification of his intention to run, the local elections commission said, but the late confirmation of his candidacy still surprised many people.
Sugeng Riyanto, the city parliament’s deputy speaker, said that there had been a push not to have an empty box in fear of the optics, especially if it went on to receive many votes.
“That would be tremendously embarrassing, not only for Gibran, but also the president,” said Sugeng, a member of the only political party not supporting Jokowi’s son.
Sugeng said he believed that Bagyo’s candidacy, was “about avoiding that scenario.”
Bagyo denied that. Neither Gibran’s campaign nor the president’s office responded to requests for comment on the accusation.
Describing himself as an anti-establishment candidate, Bagyo is backed by a little-known social organization called Tikus Pithi Hanata Baris.
“I ran because of my capacity to break the establishment, [to show] anyone can choose and be chosen,” Bagyo said.
Even for an independent, some observers find Bagyo’s candidacy odd, as he lacks strong social or political capital with any mass organization or political network.
“This candidate in Solo, he seems to have come from nowhere,” said Wawan Mas’udi, a political scientist at Gadjah Mada University.
To qualify as an independent, Bagyo was required to collect almost 36,000 signatures.
Budi Yuwono, a spokesperson for Bagyo’s campaign team, said that they first started collecting signatures at the start of last year.
The team initially avoided social media, because they were worried that political parties could try to obstruct their campaign, he said.
It also seemed to have avoided attention. Few people Reuters spoke to in Solo said that they had heard of Bagyo until September, when he registered his candidacy, launched a campaign Web site and opened social media accounts.
Reuters also spoke to people on the list of signatories who denied backing Bagyo’s bid.
Tresno Subagyo, a paralegal, was among those surprised to find an election official at his door checking that he had signed up.
“I never gave my support to Bagyo,” he said.
Johan Syafaat Mahanani, a member of a community election monitoring group, said that there were dozens such cases.
“They were just normal people, afraid to report it to authorities,” he said.
Another resident told Reuters that two people had visited his home and taken a photo of his identification card, only to explain their reason afterward.
“They came merely to make sure Bagyo could run,” he said, adding that at least seven neighbors had similar encounters.
Gibran’s campaign team did not respond to questions about the authenticity of Bagyo’s support.
Bagyo’s campaign team said it was possible that there could have been “one or two” mistakes in the collection of signatures, but not amounting to thousands.
Suryo Baruno, a local elections commissioner, said that 14,000 names listed for Bagyo were deemed ineligible after two rounds of verification.
The campaign subsequently sought additional signatories to meet its target.
A separate elections supervisory body later said that it investigated a report about fraudulent use of identification cards, but found no irregularities.
Sugeng said he believed that what had happened was “a stain on democracy.”
When Gibran registered his candidacy, riding a vintage bicycle to the elections commission, he conjured up an image of his father, who did the same when he lodged his bid for the presidency.
Confronted by accusations that he is perpetuating Indonesia’s dynastic politics, Gibran said that he “welcomed all criticism,” and believed that he could create positive change in more people’s lives as a mayor than as an entrepreneur.
A Kompas poll in August showed that nearly 61 percent of respondents did not like dynastic politics, but in Solo, a city famous for its aging palace and traditional batik, voters were pragmatic.
“There has been political dynasties for generations,” said Hartanto, a 42-year-old pedi-cab driver. “What’s important is they know their people.”
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