THE sultans of the ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta have a knack for political survival. In 1945, at the start of the war for Indonesia’s independence against Dutch colonialists, Sukarno rewarded Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX for fighting on the side of the new republic by appointing him governor for life. He was good to his word. Decades later pro-democracy protesters overthrew Sukarno’s successor, Suharto, in 1998, and ushered in a period of far-reaching constitutional change. Legislators introduced elections for provincial governors—almost everywhere. Somehow, even then, Yogyakarta’s sultans clung on to power.

Last week Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, who became governor of Yogyakarta, or “Jogja”, in 1998, dodged another constitutional bullet. On August 30th the national legislature enshrined in law the controversial convention whereby the sultan “inherits” the title of governor. (The title of vice-governor is held by the royal house of Paku Alam, which rules a small principality within the sultanate.) The new law concludes almost a decade of tense negotiations between Yogyakarta and the government in Jakarta.

In Indonesia, which has emerged as one of South-East Asia’s most democratic nations in the 14 years since Suharto’s ouster, the sultan’s hereditary claim to the governorship is a striking anomaly. In the rest of the archipelago, provincial governors, along with most other executive officials, from village chief up to president, are now elected directly by the people. Yet the sultan’s subjects themselves have vigorously defended their right to remain disenfranchised. Angry protests erupted in Jogja in 2010 when the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, expressed his support for direct elections.

In the face of such opposition, Mr Yudhoyono’s government has abandoned its attempts to foist democracy on the royalty-doting Yogyakartans. It has, however, extracted a concession in return: the sultan and his heirs will have to renounce all ties to political parties. In practice, this is likely to benefit Mr Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, since the sultans have traditionally allied themselves with a rival party, Golkar. The current sultan had even been seen as a possible running mate for Golkar’s chairman, Aburizal Bakrie, at the next presidential election in 2014. The sultan could conceivably still run as an independent in two years’ time.

It is tempting to dismiss Yogyakartans’ fealty to their sultan as a reflection of popular disenchantment with democracy. And there is some evidence that Indonesians are fed up with their elected politicians. A survey conducted last year, for example, found that Suharto’s authoritarian “New Order” was seen as preferable to politics in the reform era. Some national politicians certainly seem to be losing patience with local democracy: Mr Yudhoyono’s government is proposing revisions to a regional governance law that would replace direct elections for governors with indirect elections by local legislatures. This would in effect transfer power from ordinary voters to political parties.

But in Jogja support for the sultan seems to stem not so much from any wider repudiation of democratic values as from the city’s place at the heart of Javanese identity. Whereas Jakarta grew out of the Dutch trading port of Batavia, Yogyakarta is a successor to the Mataram sultanate, the last of Java’s great empires to resist colonial conquest. The city, which radiates outwards from the white-washed walls of the sultan’s court, remains a leisurely centre of fine arts, culture and learning. To Yogyakartans the national government’s attempts to introduce democracy looked like nothing so much as an assault on the city’s traditions and special status within the republic.

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)