They ignore the local statistics, but hang on to the exceptional example, Mahathir bin Mohamad. Next month the Malaysian Prime Minister will turn 94 and although he promised to hand over to Anwar Ibrahim, 71, that has yet to occur.
So if a nonagenarian soufflé can rise twice (Mahathir retired in 2003 after 22 years inPutrajaya’s Seri Perdana) and continue to run a majority-Muslim nation, why not the hustlers next door?
Indonesia’s gerontocracy controls an archipelago where the median age is about 30, blocking the next generation of talented democrats from steering the country towards the rule of law and away from paternalism and corruption.
Mahathir is the role model for sclerotic politicians in the world’s fourth largest nation when challenged on their fitness to govern.
Jakarta’s megarich oligarchs who dominate the Republic were already deep in the venal mire when wee Joko Widodo was squishing his toes in the mud of Central Java’s Solo River.
The nation is ostensibly run by this mild-mannered commoner and just re-elected seventh president of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The son of a woodworker with no soldierly ancestors was four when Indonesia came close to suicide. A bloody anti-Communist coup and resulting genocide toppled founding President Soekarno and put the abstruse General Soeharto in charge for the next 32 years.
By the time Widodo graduated from the University of Gadjah Mada in 1985 with a degree in forestry, he presented as an unexceptional lad with interests in business, and later local government.
At that stage Soekarno’s daughter Megawati was boiling to revenge Papa who died in 1970, but her ambitions were brutally squashed by Soeharto. Three years after he fell she became the fifth president. She was the nation’s first woman leader but a feeble figurehead, largely governed by the army during her term (2001 – 04).
She tried twice to re-enter the Palace; in 2009 she campaigned with this year’s contender Prabowo Subianto as her sidekick, but was locked out by unimpressed voters.
Now 72 she runs the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDI-P) the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and the country’s largest party. It’s supposed to be secular, but that doesn’t mean an absence of Islamic politics.
Knowing Megawati would likely loose again, the PDI-P reluctantly nominated Widodo, then the can-do Governor of Jakarta. Soon after winning in 2014 he was being publicly humiliated, told who was the dahlang manipulating the shadow figures, and who was the puppet.
At the PDI-P’s national congress everyone present heard Megawati say: ‘As the extended hands of the party, you are its functionaries. If you do not want to be called party functionaries, just get out!’ The President stayed silent.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Harcher commented: ‘It was, in all, a brutal and calculated putdown … He (Widodo) now finds that he has no dignity serving her (Megawati), yet he cannot rule without her.’
For Megawati, Widodo is just keeping the Jakarta White House aired and tidy while her daughter Puan Maharani orders new furniture ahead of moving in next decade. Recent changes in the Constitution restrict presidents to two five-year terms.
Maharani, 45, is Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs, a position where her talents have been kept well hidden. Unless there’s an eruption of enthusiasm and fresh ideas to dazzle the electorate she’ll be wasting her time briefing decorators.
Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – SBY (2004-2014) is another dynasty planner. Now 69, he’s trying to hoist his sons into the Cabinet where one can saddle-up for a tilt at the presidency.
Agus, 41, a former major, helps run the old man’s Democratic Party. Edhie, 38, was educated at Perth’s Curtin University and has a seat in Parliament. Indonesian presidents can choose independent technocrats and members of other parties to serve as ministers.
Subianto was sacked from the army in 1998 for ‘misinterpreting orders’. This year he lost his fourth stab at public office. After Jakarta thugs failed to change the result with rocks and Molotov cocktails, he’s turned to the Constitutional Court, alleging fraudsters conspired to deliver an 11-point loss. The commentariat has written off his chances.
Late last year he dithered about nomination and looked sick. But as a superstitious high-born Javanese megalomaniac he may well try again if the moneymen are persuaded. He’ll be 73 in 2024; his only child Didit works in Paris. Like Widodo’s three kids, the fashion designer has shown zero interest in following Dad.
Black hair-dye comes in flagons to Jakarta where businessman and Vice President Jusuf Kalla,77, looks perpetually middle-aged; his successor, slightly younger hardline Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin is not so vain, and for now lets his grey locks show.
Army leftovers continue to influence. Subianto gathered a platoon of retired parade-ground warriors to bolster his campaign, including SBY.
Widodo’s team includes Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs. Both are 72, former top generals, dyers and close advisors to the President.
Also looking awkward out of uniform are Defence Minister Ryacudu, 69, and Widodo’s chief of staff Moeldoko, 61.
Democrats and human rights activists fret that the remnants of Soeharto’s dictatorship are still on stage, in the wings, directing and producing in rehearsal rooms, wistful of the days when voters clapped continuously.
Malaysia’s Mahathir was once labeled ‘recalcitrant’ by Paul Keating. So are Indonesia’s last century left-overs.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in Indonesia.