From making money selling pancakes to vice-president? Joko Widodo’s son aims for the top | Indonesia

Indonesia’s next vice-president could be a familiar face. Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, is the son of the current president Joko Widodo and his swift rise to the top of the country’s political echelons is proving controversial, raising questions about dynasty-building and the strength of the country’s democracy.

Born in 1987 in Central Java, Gibran was educated in both Indonesia and in Singapore. His father ran a furniture company for much of his childhood, and Gibran was 17 when Jokowi took office as mayor of Solo, his first position before he became governor of Jakarta and, later, in 2014, president.

Gibran has run various food businesses, including a catering firm Chilli Pari, and Markobar, a chain selling martabak, a sweet or savory pancake popular in Indonesia. But by 2020, he was following in his father’s footsteps by running in a mayoral election in Solo. He won by a landslide, boosted by his father’s brand.

Gibran appears to be seeking to emulate his father’s image as a humble, courteous and polite politician, says Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a researcher at the Research Centre for Politics at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency. He has an informal approach, he adds: “He would stroll around by bicycle during his campaigning.”

Some argue Gibran may appeal to younger voters, though Deasy Simandjuntak, Associate Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, in Singapore, cautions that the youth are not a “unitary voter block” who necessarily back young politicians.

“Many of them are rational voters who will scrutinise a candidate’s real achievement, competence, experience, and performance, prior to deciding who to vote for,” she said.

Students burn banners during a protest against the constitutional court’s decision on the presidential candidates age limit that paved the way for President Joko Widodo’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka to enter the race to become vice-president. Photograph: Mast Irham/EPA

Gibran avoids sharing opinions on national issues, instead focusing on highlighting local projects in Solo. “He’s never mentioned [what] … he wants to enact in terms of economic policy … or the welfare program that he wants to propose to the people,” says Vishnu Juwono, assistant professor in public governance at University of Indonesia. Gibran, and his brothers, still have a “very thin track record politically”, he adds.

He may be a political newcomer, but his father has the power to mobilise vast numbers of voters.

It was a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court – which is headed by Gibran’s uncle – that opened the door for him to run in next year’s election.

The decision created a controversial exception allowing candidates under the required age of 40 to seek the presidency or vice-presidency provided they have previously held elected regional office – a criteria Gibran meets.

Just days after the verdict, the presidential frontrunner, defence minister Prabowo Subianto, 72, announced Gibran as his running mate.

Many were outraged by the ruling, questioning the independence of the courts and warning that Jokowi is seeking to form a dynasty to prolong his political influence. A two-term limit prevents him from running again.

Prabowo’s team is likely hoping such anger will fade, and that Gibran’s political image can be boosted over the coming months, says Deasy.

The pairing could enable Prabowo, a former general who is accused of various rights abuses, to chip into Jokowi’s support base. “Jokowi is a very popular president, with a massive number of diehard supporters. He can mobilise millions of votes for a person of his choice,” says Deasy.

Gibran is also popular locally as mayor of the Solo, a position he has held less than three years, with a growing number of loyal followers in Central Java, she adds – however the notion that Gibran is merely being installed as part of a plan by Jokowi to build a dynasty and protect his political legacy could undermine his appeal.

He is not the only son of Jokowi pursuing politics. Jokowi’s youngest, Kaesang Pangarep, recently joined the youth-oriented Indonesia Solidarity Party (PSI) and, within days, became its chairman. Jokowi’s son-in-law Bobby Nasution is now mayor of Medan.

Vishnu points to the uneasy relationship between Jokowi and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the eldest daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who is the powerful chairwoman of his party Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

“Jokowi feels he doesn’t have political space to build his own legacy through PDI-P,” says Vishnu.