In Indonesia, Democracy or Dynasty?

Not long ago, the eldest son of President Joko Widodo of Indonesia was running a catering business and a chain of dessert shops. Now he is the symbol of a budding political dynasty and the beneficiary of family maneuvering.

With the help of a high court ruling led by his uncle, the president’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, has emerged as the leading candidate for vice president in next month’s national elections. If his ticket wins, he would become Indonesia’s youngest vice president ever.

The machinations have rattled critics, who warn that Mr. Joko is moving to undermine democratic overhauls that were adopted after decades of dictatorship and that helped Mr. Joko himself win the presidency in 2014.

Three candidates are running to succeed Mr. Joko in Indonesia’s Feb. 14 election, including a former general who is now defense minister, Prabowo Subianto. Mr. Prabowo, who has long been accused of human rights abuses, has lost the last two elections to Mr. Joko.

But this time, the president, widely known as “Jokowi,” is lending his brand to the former general — in the form of his son as running mate. The merger of the two political families appears to give their ticket the edge, polls indicate.

“It is clear that Jokowi is building a political dynasty,” said Yoes C. Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta. Mr. Joko’s goal, he said, is to prepare his son to run for president in 2029. Serving under Mr. Prabowo would be a “period of apprenticeship.”

“Because in the end, the aim is president,” he said, “not vice president.”

A former furniture manufacturer, Mr. Joko rose from city mayor to governor and eventually to president of the world’s third-largest democracy without having family connections. After winning his first term, he said that becoming president “does not mean channeling power to my children.”

But after Mr. Joko won his second, and final, five-year term in 2019, members of his family embarked on their own political careers. In 2020, Mr. Gibran was elected mayor of Solo, and Mr. Joko’s son-in-law, Muhammad Bobby Afif Nasution, was elected mayor of Medan.

In September, the president’s younger son, Kaesang Pangarep, 28, joined the Indonesian Solidarity Party. Two days later, he was named its chairman. The party is widely seen as a post-presidential vehicle for Mr. Joko that he can use to help cement his legacy as a leader who sought to modernize the country with new toll roads, ports and airports.

As party chief, Mr. Kaesang has drawn attention by carrying a teddy bear to official meetings. He told reporters the bear was a gift from his wife.

For his part, Mr. Gibran was able to run for vice president only because his uncle and the Constitutional Court intervened in October, allowing candidates younger than 40 to run for president or vice president if they have previously been elected to office. Casting the deciding vote in the 5-4 ruling was the chief justice, Anwar Usman, who had been appointed to the court by Mr. Joko and later married the president’s sister.

An ethics panel quickly removed Mr. Anwar as chief justice for his “serious violation” of the court’s ethics code, but the decision still stands. Mr. Anwar denies any wrongdoing.

Days later, Mr. Prabowo — who was the son-in-law of the ousted dictator, Suharto — picked Mr. Gibran as his running mate in the apparent hope that the president’s popularity would rub off on his campaign. Polls suggest that the ticket has the edge over the other two candidates running to succeed Mr. Joko in the election next month, but that a runoff, in June, is likely.

Mr. Joko deflected criticism of the political maneuvering by joking that it was like the Korean dramas popular in Indonesia.

“Lately we have been presented with too many dramas, too many Korean dramas, too many soap operas,” he told party followers in November, without mentioning his own family’s role in the theatrics.

But many analysts accuse Mr. Joko of orchestrating such spectacle from behind the scenes for years, seeking to extend his influence past the end of his presidency.

“This is not a drama,” said Titi Anggraini, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia. “This was planned engineering.”

Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, agreed. “He will give the impression of being detached because that is his political style, but he is very much behind it,” he said.

Mr. Wilson, who has long studied Indonesia, portrays Mr. Joko’s maneuvering as part of an anti-democratic trend embraced by many Indonesian politicians. They include Mr. Prabowo, who once hoped to succeed his father-in-law and for decades was barred from entering the United States because of his record of human rights abuses. Known for his quick temper, he has spent decades trying to remake himself as a fatherly figure.

“I don’t see Jokowi as a democrat at all,” Mr. Wilson said. “Jokowi has those autocratic tendencies, and so does Prabowo.”

Mr. Anwar, the Constitutional Court justice, married into the president’s family in 2020. He had met the president’s sister, Idayati, after joining the court in 2018. Both had been widowed.

At the time, legal experts warned of future conflicts of interest. Some urged the chief justice to resign from the court or, at the least, recuse himself from cases involving his new brother-in-law. But Mr. Anwar was still central in the ruling that helped his nephew.

“That decision was very important because it changed the rules of the game for the election system,” said Jimly Asshiddiqie, the head of the court’s Honorary Council, which enforces its ethics code.

After investigating how the court reached its decision, the council removed Mr. Anwar as chief justice and censured the other eight justices for letting him participate in the case. The council allowed Mr. Anwar to remain a justice but barred him from participating in election matters.

“We have a big problem with the ethical culture,” said Mr. Jimly, himself a former Constitutional Court chief justice. “Most public officials do not have the ethical sense that conflict of interest is wrong.”

Mr. Anwar denies he did anything improper and contends that the ethics ruling was not based on facts or the law. “My dignity as a career judge for almost 40 years has been destroyed by a very vile and cruel slander,” he told reporters in November.

Before the ruling, Mr. Gibran dismissed rumors that he would run for vice president, saying he wasn’t qualified after serving less than three years as mayor.

“I’m still very new,” he said in a July television interview. “There’s still so much I must learn. From mayor to vice president is too big a leap.”

Mr. Gibran’s campaign declined requests for an interview.

In Solo, a city of about 550,000, some voters remain unimpressed by Mr. Gibran’s bid for higher office. While deeming his mayoral performance satisfactory, they question his readiness to move up.

“Everyone has to start from the bottom so you gain experience and maturity,” said Paryani, 43, who sells bananas at the crowded Pasar Gede market. “This is about managing a country, not just a city.”

And in Jakarta, one first-time voter, Neiva Kayla Hamzah, 17, said she was troubled by the president’s son using “his privilege” to enter the race. Becoming a candidate after his uncle bent the rules calls into question what kind of vice president Mr. Gibran would be, she said.

“This shows that he will do whatever it takes,” she said, “and will do anything to benefit himself.”

This article was produced with support from the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.