Moving capital cities: Indonesia – a case study

15th October 2020

Reportedly, in the last 100 years, 30 countries have made the decision to relocate their capital city.1 Motivations for this have varied broadly from authoritarian whim, such as the moving of the Kazakh capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997 or the creation of Naypyitaw in 2005 and the subsequent moving of the Myanmar capital from Rangoon, or national rivalries such as the building of Canberra to appease Sydney and Melbourne (situated in-between the two) and the establishment of La Paz as co-Capital next to Sucre in 1899 after a brief civil war in Bolivia.2 3 According to Professor Vadim Rossman of the Higher School of Economics a key theme in moving capitals has been to create balance through the uniting of different areas of a country. The moving of the capital in Nigeria from Lagos to Abuja in 1990 was done for this very reason, with its central position designed to balance the Christian south and the Muslim north.4 Likewise, the creation of centrally located Brasilia in Brazil during the 1950s was designed to connect the interior with the heavily populated coastal regions.5

According to Bloomberg, currently, more than 40 countries are contemplating moving their capital, with the reasons for doing so becoming increasingly necessary due to overpopulation and the effects of climate change.6 One such country who has set these wheels in motion is Egypt who announced in 2015 that they would be creating a new capital 28 miles east of Cairo and at an estimated cost of $58 billion; although the project has now been delayed until 2021 due to COVID-19.7 As reported by CNN, the new capital plans to ‘have an international airport bigger than Heathrow, solar energy farms, 40,000 hotel rooms, nearly 2,000 schools and 18 hospitals – all linked together by over 6,000 miles of new roads’ and covering over 150 square miles.8  The new capital is also said to have plans for a new presidential palace and parliament, Africa’s tallest skyscraper and housing for 6.5 million people.9 It is hoped that the creation of this new capital will help to be a solution for the pollution, congestion and soaring rents faced by residents of Cairo. A similar problem has presented itself to Indonesia who also finds itself needing to unite different parts of the vast archipelago. One could argue that the need to move the capital from Jakarta is even more of a necessity for Indonesia who faces both the environmental and human factors.

In August 2019, the Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, announced that the national capital, which had resided in Jakarta on the island of Java since 1949, would be moved to East Kalimantan, on the Indonesian portion of Borneo.10 The government, currently based in Jakarta, announced that a new purpose-built city will be built on a 2,560 site on the island and will house the country’s administrative infrastructure including a new presidential palace, a new parliament, as well as new government offices and a Supreme Court.11 Alongside these buildings will be homes for an estimated 1.5 million civil servants.12   The cost of this venture is expected to cost $32.7 billion largely funded by public-private partnerships and private investments, with the state directly funding 19% of the costs.13 President Widodo has called the move to Kalimantan strategic due to its location ‘in the centre of Indonesia and close to urban areas’ also commenting that ‘a capital city is not just a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation.14 15 This is for the realization of economic equality and justice’. Whilst the government had hoped to begin moving staff to the new capital by 2024 it is expected that this timetable will need to be revised due to the Finance Minister having to relocate funds from the project budget in order to be utilised against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.16

The idea of moving the capital away from Jakarta is not a new one and has been considered for almost as long as Jakarta has acted as the capital, and was first raised by the country’s founding president, Sukarno.17 However, with the effects of climate change and overpopulation increasingly being felt on Java it has become a case of acting urgently. Due to overcrowding and traffic congestion air quality in Jakarta has become a big problem, having been recorded as being worse than infamously polluted cities such as Delhi and Beijing.18 Further to this, the country’s Planning Minister has also said that traffic congestion in Jakarta is currently costing the economy $6.8 billion a year.19 As well as being most polluted and most congested capital, Jakarta also has the accolade of fastest sinking.20 Whilst President Widodo described Java Island as being too heavy as a metaphor, referring to the island being home to 54% of the country’s 260 million population and 58% of its GDP, he could have also meant this literally with North Jakarta sinking 25cm a year due to subsistence, causing increased flooding.21 It is predicted that large parts of Jakarta could be fully submerged by 2050.22

Located in an area prone to natural disasters, Indonesia was not spoilt for choice when choosing a new location, especially now that these disasters are becoming more ubiquitous.23 This is also a problem that is, or will be, affecting more countries as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent and it will not be a surprise if other countries follow suit and add to the lengthening list of countries who have moved their capital.