A Bush-Style Dynasty Emerges in Indonesia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this scion could be in line to lead the world’s fourth-largest country.
By Daniel Malloy
Admirers clog a narrow street in a lower middle-class West Jakarta neighborhood as a train of SUVs pulls in. Out hops Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, grinning as middle-aged women in headscarves swoon and mob him for photos. A young man on the periphery nudges me, saying of the man vying to be governor of Jakarta: “He’s pretty famous with the ladies.” As the former army major makes his way up the street, he suddenly breaks into a jog, as security guards, fans and media hustle to keep up. It was both projection of youthful vigor and metaphor for an accelerating campaign.
The son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s first directly elected president, Agus ditched a promising military career for a surprise entry into politics. Running the 10 million-strong megacity and media center is seen as a stepping stone to the presidency of the world’s fourth most populated nation, after President Joko Widodo made the leap in 2014. But Yudhoyono’s run at first was a long shot. Incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, seen as an effective manager, boasted high approval ratings. Ahok is Christian of Chinese descent, and the Muslim-dominant but cosmopolitan capital did not seem to much care. (“London has a Muslim mayor; Jakarta has a Christian governor,” my Uber driver mused one day with a shrug.) But in a September speech, Ahok said voters were being deceived by foes who used a Koranic verse to imply Muslims should never vote for a nonbeliever. Critics immediately denounced Ahok for attacking the Koran, drawing an apology that did not douse the flames — even from those who are not hard-liners. “When the issue is about the blasphemy of the holy book, even the nonconservative is very easily persuaded to go to the street,” says Djayadi Hanan, a political science lecturer at Paramadina University in Jakarta.
More than 100,000 protesters took to the street against Ahok on November 4, with some calling for his death in a demonstration that ended in violence. (Weeks later, 10,000 gathered with a countermessage celebrating Jakarta’s unity in diversity. Another peaceful anti-Ahok protest drew 200,000 in December.) Then, on November 16, the day before Yudhoyono hit the streets for glad-handing, Indonesia’s national police announced Ahok as a blasphemy suspect. It’s unclear whether Ahok, who did not respond to a request for comment, will go to trial, or how far the case will proceed before the February 15 vote. But the once-dominant incumbent is in trouble in the polls, as Yudhoyono surges.
But win or lose, the scion could soon be a top contender for the presidency.
If the Yudhoyonos are seeking to be the Bush dynasty of Indonesia, Agus is probably more Jeb than George W. He is the egghead with two graduate degrees, including one from Harvard. The younger Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono is the legislator and party leader, but “was seen as a weak link,” says Achmad Sukarsono, an Indonesian analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. With the Democratic Party, helmed by former president and patriarch Susilo, scarred by corruption scandals, Agus was lured into the family business as a savior. His army career was on the rise, but he resigned after a party coalition tapped him to run. Yudhoyono’s official entry on the final day of qualifying came with Arabic music and prayers to the Prophet Muhammad. Then he hit the streets.
While Agus and Ahok have clashed about Agus’ promise of direct cash payments to the city’s poor, the campaign so far has been light on policy. “I don’t think there is so much difference in terms of the program,” Hanan says. “But in terms of personality, I think [Yudhoyono] has some advantages.” At 38, he’s the youngest candidate in the field, and he is married to popular model and television presenter Annisa Pohan. In cultivating the image, Yudhoyono pays attention to the smallest detail — even designing the black collared shirts he and his staff wear around town (so his staff told OZY). It all plays well on social media, crucial here in what was named the world’s most active Twitter city in 2012. His campaign strategist Imelda Sari calls him the “last-minute candidate” and declines to attack his two opponents — she says she’s sticking to a ground game of face-to-face voter courting. (The top two candidates advance to a runoff if no one tops 50 percent on February 15, which appears likely.)
As he works his way through the alleys of West Jakarta, Yudhoyono performs a martial arts demonstration, is serenaded with songs and poses for selfie after selfie. What he does not do much of is speak. Approached by OZY, he shakes my hand and asks where I’m from. When asked what it’s like to campaign for the first time, he replies, “I will talk about it later, OK?” and I am whisked away. OZY’s requests for an interview were denied.
There’s reason for the caution. Even a respectable loss could help rebuild the Democratic Party brand ahead of President Widodo’s re-election bid in 2019 under the rival Democratic Party of Struggle banner. Yudhoyono could challenge then or bide his time until 2024 by running for the legislature. “Even if he loses in 2017, we can say his presidential campaign starts from the loss in the Jakarta race, so he has seven years before he becomes president,” Sukarsono says. “No other candidate would have that kind of start.” In that sense, Yudhoyono’s jog up the street is more endurance race than sprint.
An earlier version of the story misidentified Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono as a former army lieutenant colonel. He is a former army major.