JAKARTA, Indonesia — As Indonesians prepare to go to the polls to elect a new president on Wednesday, the country’s young and enthusiastic electorate is a key factor.
They can decide whether the world’s third-largest democracy maintains its trajectory of economic development and political reform, or whether it regresses to the authoritarian politics of a generation ago.
According to government statistics, young voters – whether millennials born after 1980 or generation Z born after 1996 – make up more than half of the country’s 204 million eligible voters, the largest proportion highest of all Indonesian elections.
These are the fifth elections held in the country since the fall of military dictator Suharto in 1998.
The main candidates are Defense Minister Pabowo Subianto, well ahead in opinion polls over Ganjar Pranowo, and Anies Baswedan, both former provincial governors.
Subianto is running on a list with vice-presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming, mayor of Surakarta, who is the eldest son of President Joko Widodo.
If no candidate obtains an absolute majority, a second round will take place in June.
Candidates target young voters
The enthusiasm of young voters was palpable at Jakarta’s GBK Stadium, where Prabowo held his final pre-election rally.
“Mr. Prabowo is cuddly and kind and… I’m a little nervous,” laughs Ulfa Nurmaulida, the first voter and student at an Islamic school, wearing a black headscarf. She adds that she discovered Prabowo “on social networks, TikTok, YouTube, television”.
Prabowo’s campaign team presented him as a cuddly, dancing grandfather. At the rally, his chubby, smiling avatar beams from giant inflatable statues and sky blue T-shirts. The tactic appears effective, with one poll showing 60% of Gen Z voters and 42% of millennials support Prabowo.
“You need tools, right? And these tools really work,” says Rosan Roeslani, Prabowo’s campaign manager and former Indonesian ambassador to the United States, “because they can easily digest the vision and mission of our candidates”.
Prabowo, a former army special forces commander, lost to Jokowi in the 2014 and 2019 elections. So, “people already know that Mr. Prabowo is very assertive,” Roeslani says. “But we have to show the other side of Mr. Prabowo.”
Ismoyo Bay/AFP via Getty Images
Continuity and its risks
Prabowo is expected to largely continue the policies of President Widodo, or “Jokowi,” as Indonesians call him. President Widodo is not re-elected because he is serving his last term.
During his two five-year terms, Indonesia’s economy – the largest in Southeast Asia – grew at around 5% per year. His infrastructure construction, financial and food aid to the poor, and health and education policies have been popular.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, used in the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries, and Jokowi banned the export of raw nickel, to help Indonesia move up the value chain, from mining mining to manufacturing.
Jokowi started out as a furniture maker and his rise to the top appears to herald a more egalitarian and democratic style of Indonesian politics. He promised to redress human rights violations committed under Suharto’s military rule.
Jokowi’s decision to protect his legacy, however, has alienated some supporters.
“We trusted him,” explains political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar. “We, in Indonesia, were lulled by a feeling of complacency,” she adds, “with regard to our democratic progress.”
Last October, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court relaxed the requirement that presidential and vice-presidential candidates be at least 40 years old, paving the way for Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran, to run. run for vice president.
Critics have pointed out that the court’s chief judge is Jokowi’s brother-in-law and slammed the court’s decision as riddled with conflicts of interest, nepotism and political dynasty building.
The judge was demoted for ethical violations, but the court upheld the decision.
There are also reports of anti-poverty funds being used to buy votes, intimidation of critics of Jokowi and Prabowo, and mobilization of civil servants, soldiers and police to vote for Prabowo.
“It reminds everyone – at least those who remember it – of the New Order government” of Suharto, said Dewi Fortuna Anwar.
Human rights remain a problem
Young voters born after Suharto’s fall may not remember it, but Prabowo serves as a reminder to those who do.
His candidacy means that “this election is an existential moment for the democracy and human rights movement in Indonesia,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
Prabowo is Suharto’s son-in-law. He received training in the 1980s with the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia (now Fort Moore) and Fort Bragg, North Carolina (now Fort Liberty).
The Indonesian military released him in 1998 for his role in human rights abuses, including Indonesia’s US-backed invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor.
Despite supporting the invasion, the US government subsequently banned Prabowo from entering the United States for 20 years, until 2020, when he was later granted a visa after becoming Minister of defense.
Connie Rahakundini Bakrie, a Jakarta-based defense analyst, believes this is not a good message for the United States to send. “In the eyes of Indonesians, Prabowo’s sins are forgiven,” she says.
Prabowo was also released for the forced disappearance of 23 political activists, 13 of whom were never found.
Activist Mugiyanto Sipin is among those who survived kidnapping, interrogation and torture by Indonesian soldiers, thanks to the intervention of higher military authorities against Prabowo.
“Fighting for me and for the families of the victims” of disappearance cases “is like the work of a lifetime,” Sipin says. “So we are ready. We are fighting again. I hope I can defeat him (Prabowo) again.”
Sipin notes that Jokowi’s administration expressed regret (but did not apologize) and provided housing, education, and medical benefits to a small portion of Suharto’s victims and their families, but it is a policy he is not optimistic about Prabowo continuing.
Yosef Riadi contributed to this story in Jakarta.
Gn En Hd