Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Rise of the clans

Rise of the clans

Direct elections in South Sulawesi show that a new breed of political godfathers is coming to power in Indonesia’s regions. Parties are increasingly irrelevant, but electoral competition is real.

Michael Buehler

Plenty of reasons not to
Credit: Michael Buehler

Syahrul Yasin Limpo’s house was well guarded. Before getting access to his residence, I had to pass a group of about 30 grim looking thugs. When I finally met the man for a late-night interview in his villa on the eve of the first direct gubernatorial election in South Sulawesi he was hardly able to speak. His cracking voice was the consequence of a strenuous election campaign, which had lasted for almost a year and included countless speeches and rallies. Syahrul’s efforts paid off, however. A few days later, on 16 November 2007, he was declared the winner. With 39.5 per cent of the vote, Syahrul became the first governor of South Sulawesi to be elected directly by voters.

The gubernatorial elections in South Sulawesi were among the latest in a series of direct elections during the last two years. Since revisions of the law on regional autonomy in 2004, several hundred executive heads at the district and provincial level have been voted into office by direct popular votes. Prior to that, it was the job of regional legislatures to choose government heads.

Both donor agencies and the Indonesian government promoted direct elections as a means to deepen democracy. But the South Sulawesi gubernatorial elections, and a series of district head elections in 2005 in the same province, have produced mixed results. This is exemplified well by the Yasin Limpo family’s recent political achievements.

The Yasin Limpo clan

One of the first district government heads in South Sulawesi to congratulate Syahrul Yasin Limpo for his victory was his younger brother Ichsan Yasin Limpo, who won the first direct elections in Gowa district in 2005. Since 1998, the Yasin Limpos have managed to occupy key political positions at the district, provincial and even national level.

The influence of the Yasin Limpo clan was consolidated during Suharto’s New Order period, a time when the family accumulated great wealth. The patriarch of the clan is Yasin Daeng Limpo, an aristocrat from Cikoang–Bontonompo. He was active in guerrilla units during the revolution and as an army officer from the 1950s onward. He never had a particularly distinguished military career, but being a second-level officer —as opposed to a top-tier one— ironically contributed to his local power. Top military officers tended to be transferred out of their home provinces and posted elsewhere. Yasin Daeng Limpo stayed put, so he was able to cultivate his support base in South Sulawesi over decades.

Yasin Daeng Limpo played an important role in the Central Organisation for Indonesian Independent Workers (SOKSI), a military-dominated group designed to counter rising communist strength in the 1960s. SOKSI was a founding member of Golkar, the body which Suharto’s military regime used as its electoral vehicle, and Yasin Daeng Limpo later became important in that organisation too. From the 1960s to the 1990s he served variously as South Sulawesi Golkar head, district head in Gowa and two neighbouring districts, as well as speaker and vice-speaker of the provincial legislature. He was even acting governor for a time. He also headed various province-level state-owned enterprises.

Yasin Daeng Limpo is now in poor health, but his wife and children have kept his tradition of political influence alive. Several are still active in organisations linked to Golkar, such as FKPPI (Communication Forum for Sons and Daughters of Retired Police and Military). They have also occupied positions at the district, provincial and national level since the demise of the New Order. Syahrul and Ichsan Yasin Limpo’s older sister, Tenrie Olle Yasin Limpo, is the head of the Golkar party in Gowa district and a member of the local parliament. Dewie Yasin Limpo, their younger sister, is running for district government head in Takalar in 2008. Irman Yasin Limpo, the oldest brother, is a member of the Provincial Development and Planning Board (Bappeda), which is considered to be a ‘wet’ position (an Indonesian euphemism for a job which generates a lot of income for the office holder). Haris Yasin Limpo, the youngest brother, is a Golkar cadre in the city of Makassar. Finally, their mother Nurhayati Yasin Limpo won a seat in the national parliament for Golkar in the 2004 legislative elections.

Thugs and money

Direct elections advantage families like the Yasin Limpos. Such clans succeed in politics mostly by way of two methods: intimidation, using the large groups of thugs they control, and by distribution of largesse – in the form of jobs and favours – to the common people.

The Limpo family owns several private security forces, such as the Brigade 9-11 and Brigade 02, and controls hundreds of thugs. Syahrul Yasin Limpo, for example, is the head of several motorcycle clubs which control nightclubs and provide ‘security’ during social and political events in the province.

Information on the Yasin Limpo clan’s wealth is difficult to obtain, but informants in South Sulawesi generally refer to the family as one of the wealthiest in the province, particularly in Gowa district. Before Ichsan Yasin Limpo became district government head in Gowa, he was a businessman, taking care of various family enterprises. The Limpos are also moving into media, holding stakes in Pedoman Rakyat, an important regional newspaper, and the radio station, Suara Celebes.

In addition to their own enterprises, the family has wealthy allies, including national politicians like Surya Paloh, a media magnate and national head of FKPPI, and Sulawesi-based ethnic Chinese businesspeople. Serving on the boards of Chinese-run businesses provides an additional source of wealth for the family.

With such resources at hand, during election campaigns, the Yasin Limpo family has found innovative ways to buy voters’ sympathy. For example, they have bought farmers’ products above market prices and provided cheap gasoline from fuel tankers they toured through the districts. The clan has also paid electricity bill collectors in past elections to promise voters that they will be excused from paying their electricity bills for six months in subdistricts where their candidates win a majority.

Most often, however, cash is simply handed out for votes or support. For example, I personally witnessed members of Syahrul Yasin Limpo’s campaign team busily stuffing envelopes with money for local Muhammadiyah cadres as Syahrul himself gave a speech about ‘clean government’ at the Muhammadiyah headquarters in Barru district in September 2006.

Against this backdrop, it is little surprise that the clan is surrounded by a taint of illegality. Syahrul Yasin Limpo, for example, is not only the head of the provincial anti-drug commission (BNP), he was also busted for using drugs in the company of a female ‘entertainer’ in a room of the Imperial Aryaduta hotel in Makassar in 2002. This event was well-documented in local newspapers and probably partly inspired Syahrul Yasin Limpo’s campaign slogan – ‘Don’t look back!’ – in the November 2007 gubernatorial race.

When Syahrul’s younger brother, Ichsan Yasin Limpo won the first direct elections for district head in Gowa regency in 2005, he defeated Hasbullah Djabbar, a corrupt district government head who is now facing charges. But Ichsan Yasin Limpo himself was previously charged with jointly misappropriating US$1.9 million together with 13 other politicians during his time as a member of the provincial parliament.

Old elite, new competition

The dominance of the Yasin Limpos is part of a broader pattern. No ‘new men’ have had a real chance of winning direct elections in South Sulawesi in recent years. Syahrul Yasin Limpo’s main competitor in the gubernatorial elections was Amin Syam, the governor of the province, while Yasin Limpo himself was the deputy governor. Both individuals had made their careers during the New Order, in the regime’s bureaucracy and the military respectively, and both had been involved in politics for decades. Similar observations hold true for the district level, the tier below the province. According to data I have collected, in the first direct elections for district government heads in South Sulawesi in 2005, 62 per cent of the candidates were bureaucrats who had made their careers during the New Order. This is part of an Indonesia-wide trend: competition for local government power largely occurs between bureaucrats. Candidates for executive government positions in post-New Order Indonesia, in other words, are predominately emerging from within the state, not from society.

Although old elites dominate the country’s politics, in some ways, the new electoral procedures have dramatically changed Indonesia’s political dynamics. There is fierce and genuine competition between the elites. Outcomes of both governor and district head elections are increasingly difficult to predict. Incumbents are now frequently voted out of office, as exemplified by Amin Syam’s defeat. Half of the district government heads standing for re-election in 2005 in South Sulawesi failed to hold their posts.

Election campaigns are much longer and more intense than they used to be, a further sign that electoral competition is real. Painstaking personal campaigning at the very local level is a must for any serious candidate. For the gubernatorial elections in South Sulawesi, the first campaign banners and posters appeared in towns and villages in September 2006, over a year before the poll. Similarly, for the 2005 elections for district heads, successful candidates spent long months in the villages and hamlets of their districts, wooing both common people and local power brokers.

Individuals displace parties

The strength of the Yasin Limpo clan in this newly competitive environment, indicates another development, namely the individualisation of Indonesian politics. Direct elections have made prominent local figures important. Political parties, contrary to many expectations, are not very important in direct elections for executive posts. During the Sukarno era of the 1950s and 1960s, and to some extent during the early Suharto years, party cadres were serious competitors for political power. This rivalry has been settled in favour of the bureaucrats and political clans in post-Suharto Indonesia.

This has happened despite the fact that one aspect of the new political architecture seems to favour the parties. Under Indonesia’s political laws, only parties winning a minimum amount of the vote or seats in legislative elections can nominate candidates for executive office. Even so, parties generally fail to get their own cadres elected into executive posts because they are simply too poor to bankroll them.

The author witnessed members of Syahrul Yasin Limpo’s campaign team busily stuffing envelopes with money, as Syahrul himself gave a speech about ‘clean government’.

Instead, parties have to rely upon independently wealthy candidates who can finance their own campaigns. According to interviews I conducted with a range of people – including candidates, party heads, local assembly members and local election commission representatives, a candidate in South Sulawesi district elections must pay US$100,000 to US$300,000 to purchase party nomination alone. A conservative estimate of the total costs of campaigning at the district level is US$500,000 to US$700,000. Prices are higher in resource-rich districts where the return-on-investment once a candidate wins office is also larger. Anecdotal evidence from East Kalimantan, for example, shows that candidates there face minimum costs of about US$700,000.

Because the parties offer little more than a ticket to enter the direct election race, there is little correlation between votes for parties in legislative elections and votes for the candidates those parties support in subsequent direct executive elections. Parties which appear to be strong locally cannot guarantee their candidates will win executive elections.

South Sulawesi has been a Golkar party stronghold for more than four decades. In past legislative elections, the party usually reaped victories of over 70 per cent. In fact, Syahrul Yasin Limpo himself had a long-standing career within Golkar and left the party only before the elections. His running mate for the gubernatorial elections in 2007, Agus Arifin Nu’mang, was the Golkar party’s provincial secretary and the head of Golkar’s youth organisation AMPG in the province until 2007. Yet Syahrul Yasin Limpo won the elections as a nominee of PDIP (Indonesian Democracy Party-Struggle) and PAN (National Mandate Party) which combined won only 11 per cent of the vote in South Sulawesi in the legislative elections in 2004 (against Golkar’s 44 per cent). A powerful figure such as Syahrul Limpo, then, might win such elections with or without the Golkar party backing him. In the 2005 elections for district government heads, Golkar candidates lost in half of South Sulawesi’s districts. Many of the successful figures were former Golkar members who had left the party, relying on their personal networks to achieve victory.

Rule of the rascals

Two years after the first direct elections for executive posts were held in June 2005, it is evident that the new electoral procedures have changed the dynamics of sub-national politics in Indonesia. People’s votes have become an important political resource over which local figures now compete intensively. Direct elections have brought ‘low quality democracy’ to the country, an expression used by political scientist Larry Diamond for other countries in democratic transition. This means that people have gained the power to vote politicians in and out of office but not much more. In Indonesia, direct elections have resulted in frequent shifts of power from one clan or interest group to another. However, many of the winners, so far at least, are rascals such as the Limpo brothers. Although popularly elected, they are hardly a beacon for more transparent and democratic government.     ii

Michael Buehler (M.Buehler@lse.ac.uk ) is completing his PhD in Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science on the direct elections of local government heads in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.