Crowded, polluted, gridlocked, sinking and sweaty — there are plenty of reasons to dislike Jakarta. So it is easy to understand why Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, wants to move the country’s capital city away from Jakarta. Three other locations are being considered, including Palangka Raya — designed in the 1950s by Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president and an architect, who intended it to become the new national capital.
Mr Widodo’s idea has precedents. Brazil, Russia, Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Ivory Coast, to name a few, have all switched seats of government. But the history of moving capital cities offers more warnings than encouragement.
The first pitfall to beware of is megalomania. National leaders who decide to found a new capital often come to see the new city as their personal monument. Their choices can be eccentric and costly. Peter the Great’s decision to move Russia’s capital at the beginning of the 18th century eventually created one of the world’s great cities. But the construction of St Petersburg is believed to have cost between 30,000 and 100,000 labourers their lives. In 1918, the new Bolshevik government moved the capital back to Moscow.
In the 20th century, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of Ivory Coast, built a new capital in the small inland town of Yamoussoukro — which was also his birthplace. His decision was a costly folly. The Ivorian capital boasts the largest Christian cathedral in the world, but still lacks the dynamism of the country’s business and cultural capital, Abidjan.
Similarly, Naypyidaw, the recently-founded capital of Myanmar, feels like an unloved, inland extravagance. If features 16-lane highways, with barely any traffic on them. Fortunately, Indonesia’s president is noted for his modesty and has not exhibited visible signs of megalomania. But there are other pitfalls that Indonesia should still be aware of.
Purpose-built capitals often feel sterile compared to the metropolises that they have displaced. Brasília, which became the capital of Brazil in 1960, boasts some fine modern architecture. But it lacks the beauty and drama of the city it replaced, Rio de Janeiro. In the same way Canberra, Australia’s federal capital, is a perfectly pleasant place — but it is undeniably dull compared to Sydney or Melbourne.
Despite all this, there can still be good reasons to found a new capital city. Moving Brazil’s capital away from Rio did help to encourage development in the middle of a vast country, whose economy had favoured the coasts and the south. Something similar could happen in Indonesia. The island of Java, where Jakarta is sited, accounts for 58 per cent of gross domestic product, but is just one of five main islands on the Indonesian archipelago.
Creating a new capital can have political benefits, too. If a country’s richest city is also the political centre, power can be over-concentrated. Both London and Paris are often accused of harbouring an arrogant elite, detached from the rest of the nation.
Yet moving the political capital to “the provinces”, as sometimes mooted in Britain, is not a panacea. Washington DC is not the economic or cultural capital of the US, but its political class is still regularly damned as out-of-touch. Some Brazilians, meanwhile, have concluded that the fact their politicians are housed in a remote capital city contributed to recent corruption scandals, by making it harder to monitor them.
Ultimately, moving capitals is a bit like moving houses. It can be a good idea, and it can be a bad idea. What is certain is that your problems will move with you.