Indonesia elections

Are Politicians Trying to Set Up Family Dynasties In the Name of Equality?

Sometimes the best reasons why can hide the worst intentions.
January 19, 2018, 9:30am
From left to right: Ratu Atut, Ingrid Kansil, and Airin Rachmi. Photo collage by Ananda Badudu

Seeing more women in politics should be a good thing. But what about when it's the wife of a man who is already involved in politics, or even worse, a woman running to replace her husband right when his term is up? How are we supposed to feel when candidates use gender equality to obscure the fact that they're actually just trying to hold the reins of power a bit longer?

I'm talking about political dynasties here, something Indonesia has a lot of. Nationwide, 58 political dynasties have taken hold since the fall of Gen. Suharto. Some, like in Kendiri, East Java, are the realms of a single family whose been able to rule a single city or district without pause since the start of Reformasi.

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"From 1999 until today it's been ruled by one family," Robert Endi Jaweng told local media. "Sutrisno ruled for two terms, from 1999 to 2009. Then, in 2009, his two wives ran against each other. The first wife won and now she’s entering her second term."

Tracking the rise of political dynasties is part of Robert's job as the executive director of the Regional Autonomy Implementation Monitoring Committee—a local governance watchdog group that also goes by the acronym KPPOD.

Robert told journalists that there were also two other types of dynasties, one where a family holds government positions with different state bodies that can benefit each other, like when an older sibling is a regional leader and the younger one holds an important role in the Regional Legislative Council, or DPRD.

The third, and most dangerous dynasty, is when one family holds enough key government positions to basically control an entire province, like with Limpo family in South Sulawesi.

Political dynasties are an unfortunate consequence of Indonesia's rapid democratization. Gen. Suharto ran the country with an iron fist for 32 years and Indonesia had its first free elections one year after his fall. Powerful families, emboldened by a new law that ceded more power to local political offices, quickly rose up and won elections. They then tightened their grip by securing government offices for everyone else in their family, creating modern day fiefdoms that are wildly lucrative and incredibly prone to corruption.

"Political dynasties tend to be corrupt compared to other politicians who get big without involving their family,” Adnan Topan Husodo, a coordinator with Indonesia Corruption Watch, told Tempo.

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And the strongest dynasties can survive even the biggest scandals. When disgraced Banten Governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah went down in a massive Rp 79.7 billion ($5.9 million USD) graft scandal, some experts wondered if this was the beginning of the end for one of Indonesia's most-powerful dynasties. And then last year her son won the vice governor's seat, with his mom throwing her support behind her boy from behind bars.

In this year's elections, Atut's two siblings are in the race, and her sister-in-law is still the mayor of South Tangerang, surviving the arrest of her husband and inquiries into how she made enough money to own Rp 103 billion ($7.7 million USD) in property and Rp 22.1 billion ($1.6 million USD) in luxury cars, including a Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini.

All of this is supposed to be illegal, according to the Regional Election Law, which forbids someone from running for a government position that puts them in a direct conflict of interest with someone else in their family. But the Constitutional Court then ruled against this law, saying that it was a human right to run for office.

Now, the number of political dynasties are allegedly on the rise. And the easiest way for an already elected man to establish his own dynasty is getting his wife into politics. Ingrid Kansil, a former soap opera actress and a Democrat Party lawmaker, announced plans earlier this month to run in the race for district chief of Bogor this year. Her husband Syarief Hasan, a former minister and top official in the Democratic Party, said the decision for his wife to run was all about achieving greater gender equality in Indonesia's political sphere.

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But it also smacks of dynasty politics. Indonesia needs more women in politics, the country hasn't yet reached its goal of getting women into 30 percent of political offices and all the female candidates in June's regional elections still amounts to less than 10 percent of the total electoral field.

Yet, seeing the wives of elected officials stepping up to fill these roles raises an uncomfortable question: is this about gender equality or is it another power grab?

At least one gender studies expert isn't so convinced that this is about equality. Shelly Adelina, of the University of Indonesia, said that politicians have been pulling the "gender equality" card for years. But there's a lot more at work here than just getting women into politics.

“I don’t know if they understand about gender equality or even the concept of gender itself,” Shelly told VICE. “But it makes us realize that ‘gender’ too can be used a publicity tool.”

Ingrid isn't the only politician's wife throwing her hat into the ring this election. Anne Ratna Mustika, wife of the Purwakarta district chief; Elin Suharliah, wife of the West Bandung district chief; and Mahfudoh, wife of the Bojonegoro district chief, are all running in their own races. Some of political experience on their CV. Others have none. The only thing connecting them are that they are all women and they all have a husband in a prominent political office.

Any woman's interest in politics should be welcomed, regardless of their relationship with the outgoing leader, but that doesn't mean that we all need to welcome them without any scrutiny, Shelly told VICE.

“It would be a problem if she’s just a ‘tool’ to extend her husband’s power,” Shelly explained. “It is possible that when she’s in charge, she’s dictated by her husband.”

Look, we need more women in politics. But we need more qualified women too. By 2009, one-fourth of the women involved in politics were former celebrities, actresses, singers, or the wives of politicians. Forty-two percent of them were from politically powerful families.

“The thing is, political parties might not care if female candidates are aware of gender issues or have the perspective to overcome gender-related problems," Shelly said. "Political parties might not consider gender issues as all that important. Our political parties are highly masculine, so women are put in a difficult position.

“But now it seems that women are running for office to replace their husband,” she continued. “And if that’s the case, then to me it’s a problem.”