Despite Scandal, Indonesia Election Could Entrench Political Dynasties

By Andrew R. C. Marshall 18 March 2014

MAKASSAR, Indonesia — Makassar is a scrappy, traffic-choked port city in South Sulawesi where everybody knows your name. If, that is, your name is Limpo.

The family of Syahrul Yasin Limpo, the second-term governor of this resource-rich Indonesian province, has dominated local politics for three generations, and a fourth waits in the wings. Eight of Limpo’s close relatives will run in the country’s parliamentary elections on April 9: two sisters, one brother, two brothers-in-law, two nephews and a daughter.

It all adds up to a formidable dynasty in a country where political families are both increasingly common and dogged by allegations of corruption, neglect and misrule.

In December, Indonesia’s anti-graft agency, known by its Indonesian initials KPK, arrested Ratu Atut Chosiyah, 51, the matriarch of a wealthy clan with a stranglehold over politics and business in Banten, an impoverished province west of the capital Jakarta.

Chosiyah is now in detention awaiting trial accused by the KPK of bribing a judge to favor her candidate in an election dispute last year. Her lawyer denies the charge. The KPK seized her family’s fleet of luxury cars, while local media reported on overseas shopping sprees and a US$500,000 renovation of Chosiyah’s private mansion.

Her arrest has not dimmed the ambitions of other political families, who—as the lengthy list of Limpo candidates suggests—could become more deeply rooted than ever in the post-election landscape.

Paradoxically, these dynasties are byproducts of Indonesia’s democratic rebirth. After the 1998 overthrow of former dictator Suharto, Indonesia embarked upon an ambitious program of decentralization that, through direct elections, turned many local leaders into influential politicians.

Following these politicians into public office are spouses, children, siblings and in-laws, spawning family fiefdoms in every corner of this vast archipelago. Some have shored up power by misusing central government funds intended for regional development, analysts said.

“Indonesia right now is flooded with money and there are many so-called little kingdoms around the country where nobody’s checking how local officials spend their budgets,” said an official at an international development agency who asked not to be named because he works closely with the Indonesian government.

In the Philippines, political dynasties have held sway for 70 years or more and are “prevalent in areas with more severe poverty,” said a July 2013 study by the Asian Institute of Management in Manila.

Poverty entrenched those dynasties, said the study, although there was “less evidence” that dynasties caused poverty.

In Indonesia, dynasties are a relatively new phenomenon and it’s too soon to conclude that they impede development, said Michael Buehler, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University who has studied Indonesian elites in depth.

“But the Philippines basically shows us that dynasties are bad news. Overall, the economic development of places where dynasties have been for decades has been worse than places where there is more competition.”

‘I’m Yellow’

The Limpo homeland of South Sulawesi, about 1,400 km (870 miles) east of Jakarta, is no economic backwater.

With a population of about 8 million people—the same as Switzerland—the province is rich in nickel ore and a major producer of rice, cocoa and maize. Its capital Makassar is a trade and transport hub between east and west Indonesia.

Sitting in an office guarded by a tiger which has been stuffed in mid-snarl, Limpo cites his achievements as governor: a growing middle class, falling poverty levels and a higher than national economic growth rate.

However, South Sulawesi ranks low among Indonesian provinces for spending on health and education, according to a 2012 study by the Australian government and the Indonesian policy group Partnership for Governance Reform.

Limpo began his career as a low-level bureaucrat in Gowa, a district adjoining Makassar’s eastern suburbs and run since 2005 by his younger brother Ichsan.

There are eight Limpo candidates standing for election or re-election to district, provincial and national assemblies on April 9, mostly—but not always—on a ticket for the Golkar Party, which was Suharto’s political vehicle for decades.

Limpo’s younger sister Dewi is running for the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) and his daughter Thita for the National Mandate Party (PAN).

Limpo doesn’t view his family as a dynasty. Voters have a choice, he argued, and if they happen to choose a Limpo—that’s because his relatives are hard-working, experienced and honest. “My family members have dedicated their lives to the people, and so far our track record is very good,” he said. “Until now none of the family has shown signs of corruption.”

At 28, Limpo’s nephew Adnan is already a political veteran. He was first elected to the provincial assembly a decade ago while still at high school.

Now a Golkar candidate—his campaign slogan (“I’m Yellow”) derives from the party’s color—Adnan is running for his third term in office.

“Look at John F. Kennedy,” he told Reuters after a recent strategy meeting in one of Makassar’s smoke-filled coffee shops. “All his relatives were fit to be leaders during that time.”

Thita, 33, one of three Limpos running at the national level, compares her family to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty of India.

Clan Versus Clan

Understandably, the Limpos are less keen on comparisons with Chosiyah’s disgraced clan in Banten. “We have different origins,” said Limpo.

Chosiyah’s dynasty is rooted in business: construction projects her father won during Suharto’s rule were the foundation of its current wealth and power.

Her husband Hikmat Tomet, who died in November, headed Golkar’s Banten branch, which allowed him to place family candidates at the top of the party’s list, said Buehler. Three of the four Chosiyah relatives running in the April election are Golkar candidates.

“I’m not even sure her arrest will undermine her family’s power,” he said. “All her underlings are still in place.”

Chosiyah’s spokesman Fitron Nur Ikhsan has repeatedly defended the family in the Indonesian media, describing it as “democratic” and ruled by consensus.

By contrast, the Limpo family is rooted in the bureaucracy—the governor’s father was a former soldier and five-time district head—and boasts neither the same wealth nor control over party politics. Limpo is head of Golkar in South Sulawesi, but choosing election candidates is the task of another party member belonging to a rival family.

This could make it more vulnerable than Chosiyah’s family, said Buehler.

The growth of Indonesia’s clans is not inevitable—just look at the results of last year’s mayoral election in Makassar. Irman Yasin Limpo, the governor’s younger brother, ran against a local architect and lost.

So did Nani Rosada, who ran in June 2013 to succeed her husband Dede as mayor of Bandung, the capital of West Java province.

In most areas, however, the member of a clan loses not to a reform-minded candidate, but to a member of a rival clan, said Buehler. “The dynasty building of families is mainly constrained by the influence of other families,” he said.

The KPK’s investigation of Banten’s first family could further entrench some dynasties, as incumbents seek to be replaced or joined by children and other relatives who might help shield them from unwanted scrutiny.

After an interview at the governor’s official residence, Limpo’s daughter Thita presents a 15-year-old schoolgirl who had recently returned from summer school in England with a burning desire to enter politics.

She is Andi Tenri Bilang Radisya Melati—the governor’s granddaughter.

Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta.