Twenty Years After Suharto: Dynastic Politics and Signs of Subnational Authoritarianism

Yoes C. Kenawas

Twenty years after Suharto was overthrown in 1998, dynastic politics has become a prominent feature of subnational politics in Indonesia. 1 In 2013, the Indonesian Ministry of Home Affairs found that at least 60 political dynasties exist throughout Indonesia. Although this number may seem small compared to the country’s total number of districts, municipalities, and provinces, the prevalence of subnational political dynasties has grown over time (Djohan 2017). 2 Considering dynastic politics, how should we understand Indonesia’s subnational politics two decades after the end of the New Order?

I argue that currently we are seeing some signs of “subnational authoritarianism” (Gibson 2013), with dynastic politics playing a significant role in the creation and maintenance of this kind of regime. Although the signs and degree of Indonesia’s subnational authoritarianism are not as prevalent as in some Latin American countries, dismissing signs of subnational authoritarianism in dynastic prone areas altogether would be misleading if we want to fully understand Indonesia’s politics in the post-New Order era.

Consequently, we need to further our understanding of Indonesia’s politics beyond a simple dichotomy between those who argue that Indonesia is a consolidating democracy vis-à-vis those who contend that Indonesia is an electoral democracy in which a small number of oligarchs are able to adjust themselves to the new rules of the game to serve their politico-economic interests. 3 Shifting our analytical lens from national to subnational, we can see some signs of what Gibson (2013) calls “regime juxtaposition.” Regime juxtaposition is a situation where, at the national level, electoral competition is robust, and any large-scale manipulations would certainly create social, political, and legal backlashes; while at the subnational level, signs of competitive authoritarianism are apparent, especially in areas where dynastic politics is prevalent. 4

Suharto is appointed President of Indonesia at a ceremony in March 1968.

Subnational Elites During Suharto’s Regime

During Suharto’s regime, dynastic politics did not exist at the subnational level, except at the village level. The organization of the New Order’s Indonesian state limited the opportunity for “local strongmen” to formally monopolize power at the subnational level (Sidel 2005). The regions did not have meaningful authority to elect their own regional heads because governors, mayors, and district heads – many of whom were active or retired military officers – were practically appointed by the central government in Jakarta, Legally, the local parliaments (DPRD) had the right to nominate candidates for local executive posts; in practice, however, the decisions had to be “consulted” and approved by the central government. With these formal and informal institutional arrangements, no politician at the subnational level could build a political dynasty.

Nevertheless, although formally subnational elites did not have the chance to build political dynasties, the New Order’s state organization provided some opportunities for local elites to build power bases. Sidel (2005) and Hadiz (2011) note that elites from various backgrounds – low and mid-ranking military officers, high-ranking local civil servants, local gangsters, and local entrepreneurs who benefited from government or military projects – were able to build informal political and economic bases in the midst of Suharto’s centralized and authoritarian state power arrangements. Thus, although these local strongmen could not build formal political dynasties during the New Order, their political and economic bases helped them launch their formal political careers and, in turn, dominate local political arenas (Hadiz 2011), including through dynastic politics.

The Emergence and Persistence of Subnational Dynastic Politics in Post-Suharto Indonesia

The fall of Suharto in 1998 started the chain of political processes that led to a critical juncture in Indonesia’s politics. In this crucial moment, key political actors produced new institutions that would have long-lasting impact on the ways politics is exercised at the subnational level. Three institutions were critical in paving a way for the emergence and persistence of subnational dynastic politics: 1) decentralization; 2) democratization at the subnational level – especially the direct local elections system (Pemilukada); and 3) guarantees of citizens’ political rights, equality before the law and the right to be free from any kind of discrimination.

The first two institutions paved a way for the emergence of subnational dynastic politics. As argued by Hadiz (2011), decentralization and subnational democratization allow local predatory politicians to accumulate power and material wealth. Amid weakening ideological ties among political parties, politicians, and voters (Mujani and Liddle 2010), one way to maintain that accumulation is the formation of a political dynasty (Buehler 2007).

Suharto reads his address of resignation at Merdeka Palace on 21 May 1998. Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie, is to his right.

Dynastic politics is a rational option for politicians who aspire to prolong and strengthen their grip on local politics. Dynastic politics allows incumbents at the subnational level to deal with the issue of term limits. Dynastic politics may also act like insurance against the risk of losing office, for the family as a whole unit (Chandra 2016). Additionally, dynastic politics helps local politicians to expand their power beyond their territorial strongholds. In cases where incumbent dynastic politicians choose to expand their power to a local legislature in the same province/district/municipality, this mode of politics may help them to get legislative approval for their agenda. Occupying seats in a local legislature can also be useful for incumbents’ family member(s)’ building credentials for further career advancement.

Along with the first two institutions, the third – a guarantee of citizens’ political rights, equality before the law, and the right to be free from any kind of discrimination– has allowed subnational dynastic politics to persist in Indonesia’s politics 20 years after Reformasi started in 1998. In 2015, responding to a judicial review filed by a dynastic politician, the Indonesian Constitutional Court (MK) revoked an anti-dynastic clause in the Law 8/2015 on the Amendment of Law 1/2015 on Government Regulations in Lieu of Law 1/2014 on Subnational Elections because, according to the Court, the clause posed a constitutional barrier to certain citizens’ accessing their constitutional rights, just because they had a familial tie with incumbents (Parlina 2015). The Court’s ruling strengthened the legal foundation for aspiring politicians to build their political dynasties. It has placed MK and dynastic politicians in a peculiar relationship: MK has a reputation as the guardian of Indonesia’s democracy; yet dynastic politicians have subverted MK’s original goal – to defend Indonesia’s democratic constitution – in order to protect their families’ political interests that could prevent healthy elite circulation at the subnational level and undermine the quality of local democracy.

Subnational Dynastic Politics and Signs of Subnational Authoritarianism

The emergence and persistence of subnational dynastic politics in Indonesia shows some signs of subnational authoritarianism. To a more limited extent than political dynasties in Latin America and the Philippines, Indonesian dynastic politicians try to control the level of local competition by deploying a “menu of manipulation” (Schedler 2002) that includes vote buying, intimidation against voters and/or opponents, monopolizing political parties’ endorsements, mobilizing bureaucrats, controlling local media, ballot rigging, and many other methods that fall in a grey area between legal and illegal. Consequently, the electoral playing field becomes heavily tilted for the advantage of dynastic politicians and is no longer equal.

In many subnational election disputes involving dynastic politicians, signs of incumbents’ “menu of manipulation” to support their family members have been apparent. For example, the then governor of Banten was actively involved in elections in Pandeglang (2010), South Tangerang (2010), and Serang City (2013) – areas where his family members competed in local elections. The modus operandi ranged from distributing a misleading governor’s instruction (Serang City), to massive and systematic office staff mutation in the local bureaucracy (South Tangerang), and distributing money to a number of village heads (Pandeglang). In East Java, the then regent of Bangkalan allegedly helped his son win the election by mobilizing local state apparatchiks, misusing the local government’s social welfare funds, and monopolizing political parties’ endorsements. Additionally, elections in Cilegon (2010) and West Bandung (2018) indicate that incumbents may have used their power to generate illicit funds for their family members’ campaigns. Such methods to skew the electoral playing field can also be found in other areas where dynastic politicians compete in local elections.

The problem is, although these modes of manipulation are apparent, proving in the Constitutional Court that the local elections have been structurally, systematically, and massively rigged is a very difficult task. In most cases, the application of a “menu of manipulation” by dynastic politicians is subtle. Moreover, the Court has shown inconsistencies and lack of transparency in deciding whether the subnational elections have been rigged or not (Butt 2013). Limited capacity and weak commitment of local law enforcement and elections-related agencies also contribute to the difficulty in proving structural, systematic, and massive electoral violations. In this kind of circumstance, subnational dynastic politicians can continue to tilt the electoral playing field.


At the national level, despite various deficiencies related particularly to civil liberties, Indonesia is a democratic country, or at least an electoral democracy. At this level, despite some problems of voter registration in past national elections, it is safe to say that, in general, Indonesia’s electoral regime is inclusive and competitive.

At the subnational level, however, dynastic politicians can easily exercise a “menu of manipulation” to strengthen their territorial control. At this level, dynastic incumbents have greater power to manipulate the electoral playing field, to the advantage of their family members. This contradiction between the national and subnational levels resembles what Gibson (2013) calls “regime juxtaposition.”

To be sure, the extent to which Indonesian dynastic politicians can fully exercise boundary control to create a subnational authoritarian regime does not match that of their counterparts in Latin America and the Philippines, reflecting differences in institutional arrangements – particularly federal versus unitary state structures. The Indonesian central government, through its ministries and national law enforcement agencies – such as the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) – can limit the flexibility of dynastic politicians to expand and strengthen their territorial control. Additionally, the material foundations of Indonesian dynastic politicians differ from their counterparts in Latin America or the Philippines who are mostly landed oligarchs whose families have been powerful since the colonial era. Thus, in many cases, we can find Indonesian local political families that also failed to build political dynasties.

These differences, however, do not mean that we can completely ignore the signs of subnational authoritarianism in areas where dynastic politics exists in Indonesia. Doing so could undermine the initial goals of democratization and decentralization that we Indonesians started twenty years ago. Two decades after the end of the New Order, Indonesia still has much to do to make democracy work, nationally, but more importantly, subnationally.

Yoes C. Kenawas
Yoes C. Kenawas is a graduate student in political science at Northwestern University, USA


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  1. Dynastic politics refers to a mode of political strategy where two or more members of the same family occupy elected office(s) in the same area (Dal Bó, Dal Bó, and Snyder 2009).
  2. Indonesia consists of 542 subnational units. The factual number of political dynasties throughout Indonesia is difficult to obtain because Indonesia lacks an accessible database that records the familial relationship between officeholders and their family members who also occupy elected offices.
  3. Indonesia consists of 542 subnational units. The factual number of political dynasties throughout Indonesia is difficult to obtain because Indonesia lacks an accessible database that records the familial relationship between officeholders and their family members who also occupy elected offices.
  4. Competitive authoritarianism refers to a regime type where formal democratic institutions exist but the electoral playing field is seriously manipulated for the advantages of the incumbent (Levitsky and Way 2010)