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Indonesia’s Jokowi Builds a Family Empire
Accumulates political dynasty ahead of stepping down in ‘24
By: Ainur Rohmah
Despite promises to the contrary, President Joko Widodo is leaving a family dynasty behind him, in the latest move to take control of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) via the appointment of his 28-year-old son, Kaesang, who recently joined the party as general chairman. Critics say that is consolidating the president’s supporters into one platform, considering that he will step down after next year's election.
Before entering politics, Kaesang showed little aptitude for the job. He was a YouTuber and entrepreneur, with dozens of businesses he has built since studying at the Singapore University of Social Sciences operating in various fields—many of them unsuccessful—including F&B, clothing, and startups. His name was included in the ranks of Fortune Magazine’s 40 influential young figures from the business sector in Indonesia 2023. He also bought 40 percent of a football club from his hometown Persis Solo.
“Dinasti” is an ominous word in Indonesia, given the vast criminal enterprise amassed by the Suharto family during the 32-year reign of the patriarch that ended in 1998, and may not be met with approval by the voting public. In the early days after Jokowi's appearance on the national political stage, he committed to keeping his children and family out of politics, a commitment rarely found among Indonesia’s political elite. He has broken his promise. Jokowi's eldest son Gibran Rakabuming is the mayor of Solo, the Central Java city that gave the president his start. His son-in-law Bobby Nasution has become mayor of Medan. Gibran has recently been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate. Critics say that the political dynasty being built by the family could close a political circulation system that is fair and open to all citizens.
Political observer Muhammad Qodari believes that without being Jokowi's children, Kaesang and his brothers might not have easily found political success, inseparable from the level of public support and trust in Jokowi which is still high even at the end of his 10 years in power. Survey institutions including Litbang Kompas and the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) published in May respectively showed that 70.1 percent and 82 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the government's performance. Executive Director of National Political Studies (KPN) Adib Miftahul shares the same opinion: "Kaesang's figure cannot be separated from his status as the president's son," he said, adding that the youth’s move to join PSI could determine the continuation of his family's political career after Jokowi no longer serves as president.
PSI appointed Kaesang as general chairman just a few days after he joined, a step thought to be based on considerations to gain an abundance of votes from Jokowi's supporters to meet the target of entering parliament in the 2024 election. However, critics say that Kaesang's appointment shows that PSI has failed to produce its own political poster boy who can bring in votes —the same problem that plagues the majority of political parties in Indonesia. It is the weakness of parties that provides an opening for the emergence of dynastic politics as happened to Jokowi and his family.
PSI, founded in 2014 and the only political party claiming to represent youth, millennials, and now Gen-Zers, failed to win a parliamentary seat in the 2019 races. PSI's vote share never breached 2 percent in LSI’s May-September 2023 polling. To pass the parliamentary threshold, a party needs at least 4 percent of the vote.
PSI consists of Jokowi loyalists who have consistently supported government policies, echoing what they call "Jokowism," ideas that are in line with Jokowi's of creating a developed, sovereign Indonesia. They agree with downstreaming natural resources including nickel, supporting investment and equitable development throughout Indonesia. Qodari says he suspects that with PSI entering the House of Representatives, Jokowism will be championed by its members in parliament.
Kaesang broke with Jokowi's family tradition by not joining the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the party that has supported his father since he entered politics in 2005 by running for mayor of Solo. Rumors are that this has further strained Jokowi's relationship with Megawati Sukarnoputri, the aging dowager general of the PDIP. The rift in the relationship has widened with Jokowi’s lack of support for the PDIP presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo as he embraced Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.
In speeches to PSI members and his volunteer group, Jokowi advised them not to rush into support for one of the presidential candidates, saying there were still many political maneuvers and dramas that would occur ahead of the 2024 elections.
Jokowi himself recently attracted controversy with his claim that he had complete intelligence information, both from the police and the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), about the political situation and direction of the parties. "I know how it is in those parties. I also know where (the parties) want to go," said Jokowi. This has raised concerns among civil society organizations that the president will use police intelligence to further his political interests.
Kaesang did not deny that one of his inspirations for entering the world of politics was his own father. He targets obtaining at least 4 percent of the vote in 2024 by pursuing the votes of young nationalists, including Jokowi volunteers.
"With humility, I ask for the support of volunteers and supporters of Mr. Jokowi who are not affiliated with any particular parties to make PSI a home for joint struggle, a friendly home for young nationalists for the sake of a developed Indonesia," he said.
Many predict that if Kaesang succeeds, the party most affected will be PDIP, the country's largest and oldest nationalist and PSI's main rival in the battle for the nationalist voting bloc. A PDIP spokesperson was reluctant to comment.
The relationship between Jokowi and PDIP itself has not always been happy, particularly over the party's rejection of the Israeli football team's participation in the FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in Bali. The cancellation of the sporting event in Indonesia, which disappointed football-mad Indonesia, reportedly angered Jokowi and played a major role in his dissatisfaction with Ganjar. There is also strife over the Sukarno family’s control over the party. Thus, even though Jokowi and his family have a strong influence in the world of politics, they would be unlikely to lead PDIP and would only end up as "party officials", as Megawati has repeatedly called Jokowi.
Jokowi said Kaesang asked for his permission before joining PSI but didn’t explain if he gave it. "Even if I say no, (he) will also maintain his attitude. My children are like that," said Jokowi. However, a PSI internal source said Kaesang's process to become PSI chairman has been in the works for some time, with high-ranking party officials meeting Jokowi some time ago to discuss the possibility.
As Jokowi's leadership term ends in October 2024, the presidential election is expected to be contested by three candidates: Prabowo, Ganjar, and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. Anies recently lost support from the Democratic Party controlled by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after being disappointed that his son Agus was not chosen as a vice presidential candidate. Yudhoyono is now anchoring his support to Prabowo.