Reportage

Youth vote a game changer
in general election

Young and first-time voters are like untapped resources in a general election. Their huge potential — about 29 million in number — is the target of the 12 political parties contesting this year’s general election. The Jakarta Post’s Hasyim Widhiarto provides an overview of this phenomenon and on young legislative candidates, while Hans David Tampubolon provides a sidebar in support of the main story.

When his party turned six-years-old on Feb. 6, 24-year-old Angga Raka Prabowo, the head of the Gerindra Party’s social media department, rolled up his sleeves to deal with the heavy workload in his office.

Leading a team of 45 media-savvy Gerindra supporters, most of whom are students, Angga is in charge of managing the party’s presence on various social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. His team has also supported handling the social media accounts of Gerindra chief patron and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

The team is running its activities 24 hours a day, mainly from an office located on the third floor of the party’s headquarters in Ragunan, South Jakarta.

“We divide our team into three different work shifts to ensure that those [Gerindra supporters] living in the US, for example, always receive updates about the party despite our time difference. We also need to help Pak Prabowo reply to mentions [on Twitter] and Facebook posts as he can go online for a limited time only, mostly during breakfast or before sleeping,” said Angga, who has a degree in international relations.

With support from an army of social media enthusiasts, Gerindra, which finished eighth in the 2009 legislative election, has become one of the most popular parties in the cyberspace, something that Gerindra chairman Suhardi proudly cited in his political speech at the party’s sixth anniversary.

“Today, Pak Prabowo has been endorsed by 4.2 million Facebook users, most of them young people. Gerindra’s Facebook [account] has received [endorsement] from more than 2.2 million users, making us the best-performing political party on Facebook, not only in Indonesia but also in the world. So why are you all still pessimistic about our chances [of winning the legislative and presidential elections]?” he said in front of thousands of party members at the party’s headquarters.

Those aged 17 years and above and those married are eligible to vote in the general and presidential elections.

Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), meanwhile, shows that Indonesia has 21.8 million people between the ages of 17 and 21 who are eligible to vote for the first time in the 2014 legislative election, making up 11.7 percent of the total 186.5 million voters registered by the General Elections Commission (KPU). The same data also shows that the country has 54.2 million citizens between the ages of 17 and 29, making up 29 percent of the total registered voters.  

In comparison, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party (PD) only garnered 20.8 percent of the vote to finish first in the 2009 legislative election, meaning that political parties contesting the upcoming election could significantly increase their chance of winning should they manage to secure a large chunk of this pool of young voters.

The abundance of young people has also explained why Indonesia has earned the title as one of the most active nations on social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook in the past few years, inspiring political parties and politicians to field their election campaigns in cyberspace.    

Some surveys, for example, have predicted Gerindra, which has been running massive TV and online campaigns, will become one of the country’s elite parties in the 2014 legislative election. Many other surveys have also placed Prabowo and Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician and Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, as the strongest presidential contenders.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the country’s biggest Islamic party, has also been known for its creative themes in its online campaign, many of them independently organized by its young, media-savvy supporters. The PKS is also famous for its well-structured member recruitment system that mainly takes place in schools and universities in the form of Koran study groups.

PKS majelis syuro (religious council) member and Communications and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring, who chaired the party from 2005 to 2010, said such a strategy had not only helped promote the party but also increased students’ political awareness.

Finishing fourth in the 2009 legislative election with 7.9 percent of the vote, the PKS has been struggling to maintain popularity ahead of the upcoming election following the involvement of its former chairman Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq in a high-profile graft case.

Tifatul said the party had also fielded several legislative candidates under 40-years-old in every electoral district to help attract young voters.

In a recent interview, businessman and politician Surya Paloh, the chairman of the Nasdem Party, the only new party in the 2014 legislative election, also said that 75 percent of the party’s 22,000 legislative candidates nationwide were younger than 45. Surya, however, did not elaborate on how these young politicians would benefit the party in the election.

Former student activist Dini Mentari, a United Development Party (PPP) lawmaker candidate for the second West Java electoral district covering the Bandung and West Bandung regencies, said her campaign team consisted of dozens of people younger than 30. The 40-year-old politician said their presence had also become an effective tool to better reach a wider public.

“Many Indonesians label the PPP as an old-generation party. I want to prove this wrong as the party also believes in the important role of the younger generation,” she said.

Established in 1973 as a result of a merger of four Islamic political parties, the PPP used to be the country’s largest Islamic party, but it has seen its popularity decline in the past three general elections.

The PDI-P, which many surveys predict will do well in the upcoming election, has also run various campaign programs for the youth, but unlike many other parties, it has adopted a scientific approach.

PDI-P lawmaker candidate Charles Honoris, who is also an official with the party’s youth wing Taruna Merah Putih (TMP), said that at the end of last year, the party had run a joint study with a national survey company to understand the attitudes of young voters so that the party could design suitable programs to attract young voters.

Charles, the PDI-P’s youngest lawmaker candidate for the third Jakarta electoral district that covers North Jakarta municipality, West Jakarta municipality and Thousand Islands regency, said his choice of directing election campaigns at young voters was also partly driven by his reluctance to trigger “internal rivalry”.

“As a first-time lawmaker candidate, I don’t want to lure voters that have been approached by my seniors [in the party],” he said.

There are expectations that the large participation of young voters in the upcoming election will increase the election participation level, which hit its lowest level of 71 percent in 2009.

Despite the aggressive campaign efforts of many political parties and politicians, however, there are many first-time voters who are apparently still undecided about who to vote for.  

“I’m willing to participate in the upcoming general elections but I’m pretty confused since there are so many legislative candidates on the list,” said 17-year-old high school student Amanda Viega.

Nyoman Anjani, 23, president of the Bandung Institute of Technology Students’ Body, said politicians and presidential hopefuls must convince young voters by sharing their strategy to create prosperity instead of merely selling their personal image.

“It’s important for presidential aspirants to introduce their ideas on, for instance, energy-related issues. They need to share their plan on how they will manage the nation’s energy resources to bring prosperity for all citizens,” she said.

Muhammadiyah Students Association (IMM) secretary-general Fahman Habibi, 30, supported Nyoman’s view, adding that young voters must support the most capable politicians and leaders no matter how old they are.

Although he acknowledged the importance of learning the track record of politicians, Fahman said young people must judge them mainly based on their strategy to develop the nation.

Having extensively researched the uses of social media in the country’s political campaigns, Jakarta-based Al Azhar Indonesia University communication science lecturer Lestari Nurhayati said political parties needed to establish interactive campaign platforms to transform young voter interest in their party into concrete support at the polls.

“Setting up a good-looking website alone is definitely not enough. Politicians and political parties must make sure that their websites or other social media platforms can be navigated easily and continuously updated with the latest news,” she said.

Lestari, however, warned that most young voters are already overwhelmed with media content, making them reluctant to learn about politicians’ track records.

However, historian Hary Effendi Iskandar from the Padang-based Andalas University considered this knowledge gap normal.

“This [track record] issue, unfortunately, has always emerged among middle-class society and young people with academic or NGO backgrounds,” he said.

A report from the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) in 2003 alleged that Prabowo was responsible for gross human rights violations during the 1998 riots, as well as other leading military figures including then Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Wiranto, who currently chairs the Hanura Party.

Golkar Party chairman and presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie, owner of oil and gas company PT Lapindo Brantas, meanwhile, was deemed responsible for the mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java, in 2006.

Both Prabowo’s and Wiranto’s camps have undermined activists’ efforts to remind the public about their human rights track records. “The [human rights] issue is always [used against] Pak Prabowo in every election. We’re used to it,” Gerindra secretary-general Ahmad Muzani said.

In last year’s interview with the Post, Wiranto insisted he “did what he should’ve done”.

Meanwhile, Aburizal said in a recent interview he had disbursed Rp 9 trillion (US$770 million) to settle the Sidoarjo mudflow issue from his own pocket, even though the Supreme Court had ruled that his company did not have to pay for the damage.    

Nyoman, however, reminded that the responsibility for attracting the participation of young voters in the election should be not only that of political parties and election organizers but also that of young voters.

— Nurfika Osman, Hans David Tampubolon and Hans Nicolas Jong contributed to this article

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