Will Indonesia’s Youth Install a Political Dynasty?

On TikTok, Gen Z Voters See the Candidates as Father Figures and Kindly Uncles. They Don’t Get the Whole Story

Will Indonesia’s Youth Install a Political Dynasty? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

As Indonesia goes out to vote, scholar Amalinda Savirani writes about trends she’s observed in this election, including the ways candidates have used TikTok to bury the real issues. AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara.

President Suharto’s New Order regime was a dictatorship in which he often liked to refer to the Indonesian nation as a “family” with himself at the helm—a patriarchal state.

As Indonesia’s 2024 general elections approached, the presidential front-runners were echoing this sentiment, portraying themselves as a paternalistic political dynasty of millions of children and young people under the rule of one family’s patriarch.

This attempt to establish a political dynasty is only one of three major features of this presidential election. The other two are a major demographic shift toward young voters and the use of TikTok.

Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of current Indonesian president Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi), is the vice presidential candidate of his father’s party, running with presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Though Gibran is the mayor of Solo, in central Java, he is just 36 years old. But he has his father’s full support and, now, the law behind him: last year the Constitutional Court changed the law barring people under 40 from running for president.

The head judge of the court was Gibran’s uncle—that is, the current president Jokowi’s brother-in-law. Before promoting Gibran, Jokowi had sought ways to extend his presidency for a third term, which is against the constitution’s two-term limit.  But with public support for an additional Jokowi term low, how better to extend his rule than through bloodline?

Jokowi’s public popularity has always been high. Indonesia has had a stable economy with the fastest economic growth in Southeast Asia. The poverty rate according to World Bank data keeps decreasing. Access to health care facilities is progressing every year.

Many Indonesians are satisfied with Jokowi’s infrastructure projects, which make everyday life easier. Returning home when travel times peak at the end of Ramadan and before the Eid al-Fitr holiday requires less time every year as toll roads improve. Connectivity among remote islands in East Indonesia is also better thanks to his program “sea-toll,” boosting transport between ports and thus mobility and productivity in the region.

But, for the educated middle class and progressives, Jokowi’s steady development projects are not enough. Inequality is high—Indonesia ranks sixth for greatest wealth inequality, according to an Oxfam report. Around 1% of the population controls more than half of the economy. Jokowi’s decision to promote his own son to be vice president undermines the basic logic of democracy—an equal footing in free and fair elections—and disrespects the rule of law.

If Prabowo-Gibran wins, either in February’s first-round elections or a later run-off, Indonesia will become the House of Jokowi.

Jokowi’s preferred successor, his defense secretary Prabowo, is 72. This will be his third time running for president. He lost twice in 2014 and 2019, both to Jokowi. He also faced accusations of human rights violations in 1998, when he ordered the kidnapping of activists who had formed a forbidden party, Partai Rakyat Demokratik (PRD), who criticized Suharto’s New Order regime. Some activists are still missing.

Just as Jokowi elevated his previous opponent Prabowo into his cabinet, Prabowo has now returned the favor by choosing the president’s son Gibran as his running mate. This deal ensures that Prabowo has Jokowi’s full political support, which allegedly includes access to state resources for his campaign. From Jokowi’s point of view, a Prabowo presidency would ensure that he has a successor to continue his programs, including the building of the new capital “Nusantara” in East Kalimantan, on Borneo, with a budget of $35 billion.

This year’s election is also marked by a particular demographic shift: a significant number of Gen Z voters (born between 1997-2012). Gen Z makes up more than 52% of the total electorate, and this year will either mark their first or second time voting. Many were not even born for the Reformasi, or reform era, in 1998, which shifted Indonesia from an authoritarian state to a democracy. They do not know firsthand how it felt to be scared (but also excited) to read books that the political regime forbade, mostly associated with communist ideology.

The Communist Party and its ideology are banned now because they are regarded to be against Pancasila, Indonesia’s five-pronged official ideology. When I started my university college in the mid-1990s, I was told that two senior students in the sociology department were jailed for distributing photocopied books written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (a famous Indonesian writer with a socialist ideology). Gen Z, because they were born in the democratic era, take today’s greater freedoms for granted, and this influences their perception of politics. For many of them, Indonesian democracy is working just fine—and restrictions are from the history that came before their time.

But that history is well-known and alive in the presidential candidates today, though they seek to erase or override it and appeal to the youth. The Prabowo-Gibran team has created campaign content targeted to this group: aiming to present themselves as being young, playful and fun, thus erasing the dark past.

Using AI, Prabowo is framed and imaged as “gemoy”—chubby and loveable. This image is different from his candidacy in 2019. Then, his team exploited his military background as a decisive leader with strong discipline—in contrast to Jokowi, a civilian Prabowo then portrayed as indecisive. To mobilize support from Gen Z this time, Prabowo’s campaign centers on fun imagery. In one video, he dances awkwardly in the style of a robot, with an energetic song in the background. The song, as well as the dancing, are indeed funny and might make you smile.

Another candidate, Anies Baswedan, received support from the K-pop fanbase. He started using TikTok too, and does live broadcasts. Ganjar Prabowo, a third major candidate, did the same. They both talk about non-election issues, offering younger voters advice on how to do well in school, or find love. Each candidate portrays himself like a father figure or kindly uncle, just lounging around the house while offering some friendly and wise advice.

In 2019, Twitter was the most important battlefield of each candidate’s supporters. Now Twitter feels so old. TikTok started operating in Indonesia in 2021. The app has been downloaded 18 million times in the Google Play store.  Curious, I (of the Generation X) downloaded the app recently. It was hard to follow along with the short videos that came in quick succession of one another. The loud campaign song of Prabowo-Gibran stormed my ears as I scrolled down, saying “let’s go, let’s go, we are for number 2 (candidate).” I tried to find more substantial election content in the posts, but since I am new, my algorithm had not yet formed, and so I was stuck with the most popular content (the Prabowo-Gibran song). I returned to Twitter almost immediately.

Democracy is a hard topic that requires lots of reflection—and sometimes the organizing of people to fight against authoritarianism. The TikTok platform simplifies democracy by attracting voters’ attention to fun while burying the complexity around real issues such as inequality, poverty, climate and environmental crises. It creates widespread delusion.

If Prabowo-Gibran wins, either in February’s first-round elections or a later run-off, Indonesia will become the House of Jokowi: his family may control national politics for the next two decades. Gibran would likely become president in 2029. In 2034, we may speculate that his youngest brother will continue after him.

In 2019, I, along with more than 85.6 million voters, voted for Jokowi. But he has hurt democratic principles by promoting his son in this election, and by mobilizing the state’s resources (including boosts in social support for Indonesians and pay raises for government employees) to help the Prabowo-Gibran campaign. I tell my students that he is no different from the New Order regime, even worse. If Prabowo-Gibran wins, I hope that it will inspire a backlash, creating momentum for opposition and progressive civil society to organize, and fight back.


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