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What It Means for Indonesia’s Democracy That the President’s Son Now Leads Another Party

5 minute read

In Indonesia, it can take as little as two days between joining a political party and becoming its leader. Of course, it helps to be the popular President’s son. 

On Saturday, Kaesang Pangarep, a 28-year-old prolific YouTuber and the youngest son of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, joined the youth-oriented Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) that rivals the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P); by Monday, he was named its chairman. 

In accepting the top post, after seeking and receiving the blessing of his father, Kaesang said that he was “following in [his] father’s footsteps” and hoped to make a positive impact through his political endeavor.

“I believe that pursuing a career in politics is one of the best ways for young people to contribute,” Kaesang said on Monday. He also acknowledged that his rapid rise in PSI is mostly thanks to his father’s influence: “Privilege exists,” he admitted.

The political neophyte’s meteoric ascension in PSI, a small party that’s not represented in parliament, is considered by observers as a significant move by the outgoing President to consolidate his political influence ahead of the country’s next presidential election in February, amid tensions within his own party.

The move has also fueled doubts about the legitimacy of PSI as an upstart party with viable policy alternatives, now that it’s increasingly viewed as a mere vehicle for the dynastic ambitions of the 62-year-old Jokowi—who ironically rose to power by framing himself as the antithesis to Indonesia’s historic politics dominated by a ruling elite. Overall, experts say, it reflects an exacerbation of a broader trend of democratic decline in Indonesia.

“This is the clearest signal yet, up to now,” says Vishnu Juwono, assistant professor in public administration at the University of Indonesia, that Jokowi “really wants to be still relevant politically after 2024.”

More proxy than progressive

Established in 2014 by a former journalist, PSI built its brand around championing youth (it set a maximum age of 45 for its leaders) as well as advocating minority rights and pluralism. While there was initial optimism among younger voters for the seemingly progressive party, PSI has in recent years become seen as a proxy for Jokowi, with its members openly voicing support for the President while simultaneously going after his critics.

Kaesang’s recent entry into PSI comes as tensions flare between Jokowi and his own party PDI-P, helmed by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno. (PDI-P had previously publicly considered recruiting Kaesang and fielding him for mayorship in Depok).

“For those who saw PSI as possibly a progressive party, [Kaesang’s appointment as chair] really speaks to the fact that it’s been nothing of the sort,” Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer specializing in Indonesian politics at Australia’s Murdoch University, tells TIME. “It’s the same kind of dealmaking politics where they can see the opportunity to capitalize on Kaesang’s popularity,” which in turn simply stems from his father’s popularity.

Kaesang’s flash appointment as the head of PSI further shows that “Jokowi and his family are very confident about their grip on power,” says Made Supriatma, a visiting fellow in the Indonesia Studies program at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute. Increasingly, says Made, Jokowi is showing himself to be someone who is just as interested in political maneuvering as the old elite.

Despite his popularity, observers note that Jokowi’s presidency has also been characterized by a decline in democracy in Indonesia. Activists are routinely censored with a harsh internet law and religious groups critical of the President have been banned in the name of tackling radicalism.

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“I would not hesitate to call this a New New Order,” says Made, referencing the decadeslong military-backed authoritarian regime under Suharto beginning in the 1960s that was marked by significant economic progress but also repression, corruption, and nepotism. “Because the structure of power is almost the same, minus the military.” 

Jokowi’s dynasty

Jokowi rose to power as an outsider who, ironically, championed meritocracy. When he won the presidential election in 2014, the result was widely seen as a rejection of the oligarchs that had dominated Jakarta.

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But now it seems the wildly popular leader is trying to replicate the same system he once stood against. It’s “very clear,” says Made, that Jokowi is building himself a political dynasty.

Jokowi’s son-in-law Bobby Nasution became the mayor of Medan in 2020. And the President’s eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who became the mayor of Surakarta in 2020, is being tipped as a vice presidential candidate to Ganjar Pranowo, former governor of Central Java and PDI-P’s expected nominee. Gibran’s eligibility, however, hinges on a Constitutional Court decision on whether the minimum age required to run for office can be lowered from the current 40 years old, as Gibran is only 35. (Experts say that the court ruling will shed light on just how far Jokowi’s political influence extends. Anwar Usman, who heads the Constitutional Court, is the President’s brother-in-law).

“That’s another litmus test [for] how direct Jokowi’s involvement [will be] in determining Indonesian politics after 2024,” says Vishnu.

Jokowi himself has been reticent about publicizing who he’s supporting in the upcoming presidential election. But in the coming months, says Wilson, observers need look no further than to whom PSI endorses to identify Jokowi’s preferred pick.

“A political party that many had hoped would offer a genuine ideological and policy alternative has really just become another vehicle for power contestation,” says Wilson, adding that Indonesian politics have become absorbed with “cynical dealmaking” and “electability” rather than policy-led campaigns to address the country’s socio-economic issues.

“It’s about who can win. And I think it reflects a broader political culture, where really power is its own end.”

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