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When the United States threw off the British crown to become one of the world’s first republics, it also jettisoned the belief that some people are destined to rule over others because they were born or married into a particular family. Some two hundred and forty years later, the wife of a former President is vying for the country’s top job against a field that includes one candidate whose father and brother were President, and another whose father spent sixteen years in Congress and made three Presidential runs of his own.
Indonesia, which ranks just below the U.S. as the world’s third-largest democracy, has been trying to protect itself from this sort of dynastic succession. (India, the most populous democracy in the world, has its own struggles with dynastic politicians, although their numbers may be declining.) In March, the Indonesian parliament passed a law that prohibits anyone with one degree of separation from an incumbent, by blood or marriage, from running for one of the country’s more than five hundred mayoral, district-head, and provincial-governor seats until at least one five-year term has passed.
There is good reason for this law. Since 2005, when direct elections were introduced for these positions, some areas of Indonesia have become family fiefdoms. Ratu Atut Chosiyah, who was until recently the governor of the western Java province of Banten, worked directly with her late husband, a member of the national parliament representing her district. One of her sons served in the second chamber of parliament, the regional representative council; his seat was taken by his sister when he filled his father’s place in the national parliament. Atut’s brother, sister, and a sister-in-law are the heads or deputy heads of districts within her province. A son-in-law and a daughter-in-law both sit in the provincial parliament, which is supposed to oversee the governor’s work.
Last year, Atut was convicted of bribing the head of the Constitutional Court to rig the results of a district election, and was sentenced to four years in prison. The judge who took the bribe was convicted and imprisoned, too, and the reputation of the highest court was severely damaged. The court further undermined itself last week when it struck down the clause of the new election law that was aimed at curtailing political dynasties. The challenge to the law had been brought by a twenty-nine-year-old provincial legislator who wanted to run to replace his father as head of Gowa District, in South Sulawesi. The father had succeeded his own elder brother, when the brother was elected provincial governor. Another nine family members hold important elected posts in South Sulawesi.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the clause must be removed from the election law because it violates the constitutional right of every Indonesian to stand for election. (The following day, it struck a clause forbidding people who have served prison terms for serious crimes from seeking office.) In fact, that same idea of the right to run for office is probably the very reason that Americans don’t object more vigorously to politics as a family business. In a country based firmly on individual rights, you can’t stop Jeb Bush from running for President just because his father and brother once held the job. It’s up to voters to decide if they want to elect him as well.
There’s no doubt that a constant stream of Bushes, Clintons, Cuomos, and Daleys (and before them Kennedys, Roosevelts, and so on) sucks up bandwidth that otherwise might have carried the messages and perspectives of new and different political hopefuls. Still, dynastic politics do much less damage in the U.S. than in developing democracies like Indonesia. That’s because the U.S. has other institutions, among them an independent and credible judiciary, to check the active abuse of power both during electoral campaigns and after them. It’s hard to imagine ten family members being elected to key positions in a single state, and downright inconceivable that an elected official would appoint at least twenty-one relatives to senior management posts in local government agencies, as was reportedly the case in Banten.
As Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the governor of Jakarta, told reporters last week, the problem in Indonesia may not be political dynasties in and of themselves, but rather the ability of the particular dynasties that currently dominate the country to govern fairly and effectively. (Basuki, who is widely regarded as one of the most incorruptible figures in Indonesian politics, was previously the governor of East Belitung District. That post is now held by his younger brother.) “The Kennedys were a dynasty, but they were chosen because people know they work themselves to death for the citizens,” Basuki said. “With us [in Indonesia] most dynasties just work together at corruption and at using their power to stay in power.”
It’s possible that a stronger judiciary and more mature political institutions could control the grubbier aspects of politics by succession more effectively than a simple five-year ban. But those will take many years to develop, and the outcome is by no means certain. Ordinary Indonesians are much more clannish than their American counterparts. To them, elaborate networks of exchange are the lifeblood of a functional society. When modern democratic politics are grafted onto these networks, the possibilities for patronage are obvious. As long as enough resources trickle down to enough voters, they will continue to vote large “name-brand” clans into office.
Since the autocratic President Suharto was pushed from office seventeen years ago, local elections have played a critical part in building a functional modern democracy, but they also threaten to destroy it by allowing family fiefdoms to blossom across the nation. These imply a return not to the bad old days of the centralized autocratic state, but to a more distant past, when the nine hundred inhabited islands that now make up Indonesia were beads in a necklace of independent Sultanates, governed by people whose right to rule was granted by an unaccountable deity to a bloodline.
Another Clinton or Bush in the White House might make some Americans reëxamine the foundational myth of equal opportunity, but it will not call into question the integrity of the State. In Indonesia, family-run political machines might just pull at enough loose ends to start unravelling the nation. It may not be possible to abolish political dynasties, but they are feared for good reason.