Blog: Don’t forget oligarchic family politics

By Henk Schulte Nordholt

The recent turmoil about the role of radical Islam in elections for a new Governor of Jakarta conceals another dimension of Indonesian politics: the decades long effort of an old elite family to grab the presidency in Indonesia. Despite the emphasis on religion as the new leading force in politics, the continued importance of family and family connections reveals how old ambitions are still gaining momentum in the present day.


In 1983 when I was in Jakarta to do my PhD research, a big society event dominated the headlines. A son of top economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo married Siti Hediati Hariyadi, a daughter of President Suharto. The Dojohadikusumo family had been up and coming for decades. In the 1940s, Sumitro’s father, Margono Djojohadikusumo, was a founder of Bank Negara Indonesia, while Sumitro himself played active role in politics in the 1950s. A political conflict in the late 1950s interrupted Sumitro’s career, but he made a come-back in the 1960s under president Suharto.
The marriage of Sumitro’s son, Prabowo Subianto, with Siti Hediati Hariyadi, the daughter of the President, sealed a union between the two families and opened a bright future for the son-in-law of the President who was, at the time, making a successful career in the army. People whispered that he was destined to become the next President.
In the mid-1990s I visited a friend in Jakarta who was a former champion in the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat. Prabowo was now a high level army officer who had allegedly been involved in violations of human rights in East Timor and Papua. My friend told me that he was invited by Prabowo to become part of his entourage of strongmen. When my friend visited Probowo’s house, he was feeding a huge snake which he kept in a terrarium in his living room. ‘’You know Henk, ordinary people watch television but Prabowo was throwing living rats in the terrarium and said he really like to watch how they were swallowed.’’
Two years later, in May 1998, Suharto stepped down, Prabowo’s military career came to an end, and his marriage had failed. In a dark corner of an Italian restaurant in Menteng Jakarta, hidden behind dark sunglasses, a frail Sumitro Djojohadikusumo sat smoking. There he met one of his former assistants, now a leading economist himself. The presidential dreams of the Sumitro family (once called “the Indonesian Kennedy’s”) was in shatters. “We have lost everything”, Sumitro said.
Despite this dire prediction, however, his career was not over. Family came to the rescue, and with the help of his brother, the wealthy entrepreneur Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo made a remarkable come-back on the political front. In 2009 he was the running mate of Megawati who lost the presidential elections, and in 2014 Prabowo lost again, this time as the presidential candidate.
In late April of this year, Prabowo’s own political party, Gerindra, supported the successful campaign of Anies Baswedan who was elected as the new Governor of Jakarta. In exchange for his support, Prabowo expects Anies to support him when he runs for the presidency once again in 2019.
After almost 40 years, Prabowo is apparently still obsessed with winning the presidency and the outcome of the 2019 elections will decide whether the destiny of the Djojohadikusumo family will be victory or failure, if it turns out that Anies decides to run for President himself. As all this shows, while there’s no denying that radical Islam is a force to be reckoned with, that shouldn’t obscure the fact that oligarchic family politics still play a powerful, even determinate, role in government.

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