The Slatest

Indonesia May Move Its Capital. History Shows That Could Be a Problem.

A policeman stands in floodwater as he directs traffic.
A policeman guides traffic on a road submerged by floodwaters outside the presidential palace in Jakarta in February 2015. Romeo Gacad/Getty Images

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is notoriously polluted, crippled by traffic, and rapidly sinking. Indonesian President Joko Widodo this week announced a plan to move his country’s capital from the teeming megacity to a still-unbuilt site on the island of Borneo. Moving the capital has been a perennial fixation of Indonesian governments dating back to the country’s independence in 1945, but the president seems more serious this time: He is reportedly preparing legislation.

Wanting to get out of Jakarta makes sense in the long run. It is considered one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to climate change. But building a brand new development on Borneo, where deforestation is a major concern despite some recent progress, seems unlikely to help the problem of climate change, even with the government’s promises that this will be a “green” development.

That’s not the only concern. Indonesians ought to also be concerned about what moving the government from a city of 30 million people to a new site in—relatively speaking—the middle of nowhere will mean for the governance of the world’s third-largest democracy.

Governments usually build new capitals to make a statement at a moment of political transition and break with the old way of doing business. But while starting a capital from scratch on a clean slate seems appealing, it can often entrench governments’ worst habits.

If Widodo follows through on this plan, he will be following in the footsteps of a sizable list of countries with purpose-built capitals. The idea isn’t new—the U.S. founded a brand new capital in 1790 after all—but in the past century, it’s mainly been large developing countries that have gone this route. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made Ankara capital of the newly independent Turkey in 1923, moving it away from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. Islamabad was founded as a new capital for Pakistan in 1960, taking the place of Karachi. That same year, Brazil moved its capital form Rio de Janeiro to the Oscar Niemeyer–designed modernist showcase of Brasilia. Nigeria’s military government relocated from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. Kazakhstan inaugurated the new capital of Astana in 1998, replacing Almaty. (This year, it was renamed Nursultan in honor of outgoing president—and city founder—Nursultan Nazarbayev.)

The most infamous recent example may be Myanmar’s military government, which in 2005, moved all government offices nearly overnight from Yangon to the massive and largely empty city that was eventually named Naypyidaw. The city had been in construction for years in total secrecy on a site that had reportedly been chosen by then dictator Than Shwe on advice from his personal astrologer.

Most of these governments were not exactly democracies to begin with. Brazil was, but just four years later began a long period of military dictatorship after a U.S.-backed coup. Part of the reason may be that it’s simply hard for democracies to get away with projects this audacious. In 2002, South Korea’s government proposed moving the capital from Seoul to a new site in Sejong City, 75 miles south, but the move was blocked by the country’s constitutional court.  (A few offices were moved to a “mini-capital” in Sejong.)

But there are also reasons why some regimes would prefer to get out of town, so to speak. Economists Filipe Campante of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Quoc-Anh Do of the Singapore Management University argue that national governments located in their countries’ largest cities are far more vulnerable to public pressure. Those cities tend to be business, culture, and media capitals, which make them magnets for competing sources of power—and dissenters. A 2013 paper by the two economists examined the fact that “countries with isolated capital cities display worse quality of governance,” arguing that this is caused by the fact that elites are constrained by the “threat of rebellions from dissatisfied citizens” and that “such rebellions are more effective when they take place closer to the capital city.” Think of Paris’ long history of politically influential street protests or, more recently, the mass uprising in the center of Cairo that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. By contrast, Syria’s population distribution—which was mostly concentrated in Aleppo before the outbreak of the current civil war, rather than the capital, Damascus—could be one of several reasons why its regime proved harder to topple. The authors point out that the threat of protests was a big motivation for the moves to Naypyidaw and Brasilia, among others.

This isn’t just a dynamic in developing countries. Campante and Do have also looked at U.S. state capitals, finding that those that are farther from their states’ major population centers—think Albany, New York, or Springfield, Illinois—have higher rates of public officials being convicted for corruption offenses. This may be because there are fewer politically engaged citizens nearby and fewer media outlets reporting on what officials are getting up to.

Despite some warning signs, Indonesia is still considered a stable democracy and the very popular Joko is not considered to be corrupt. But the move may still not bode well for the future of the country’s governance.

The Indonesian government’s potential move to a safer spot also raises tough questions in the years to come. Other megacity capitals, including Manila, Dhaka, and Bangkok are similarly vulnerable to sea level rise. If these governments have to relocate, it will ensure the politicians can keep doing their jobs but won’t do much for the tens of millions left behind.